Two Burlington police officers have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a New North End resident with a history of mental illness who threatened them with a shovel last month.
At a press conference this afternoon, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan and Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced that Cpl. Ethan Thibault was justified in his use of deadly force against 49-year-old Wayne Brunette. Based on a separate investigation by his department, Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling said that neither Thibault nor Cpl. Brent Navari had violated departmental protocol.
After laying out those findings, the law enforcement officials expressed their condolences to Brunette's family and acknowledged the need to improve police responses to incidents where mental illness may play a role.
According to Donovan, on the afternoon of November 6, Cpls. Thibault and Brent Navari responded to a call from Wayne Brunette’s mother, who was seeking help because her son was acting violently. When the officers arrived, she told Thibault that her son had a history of illness and had once spent time in the Vermont State Hospital, but didn't know whom to contact about defusing the situation.
When Navari asked Brunette to drop the shovel, he responded by saying, “No, you’re going to have to shoot me,” before running at Navari and then Thibault, as if to strike them with the shovel, Donovan said. When repeated commands to drop the shovel failed to stop Brunette and he was "within striking distance," Thibault shot him four times in the chest.
The officers were carrying pepper spray but not Taser stun guns that day, Schirling explained. But neither pepper spray nor a Taser would have "been the appropriate response to ... the weapon that was presented,” Schirling said. There was “no guarantee that either one of those things could have stopped the threat.”
The state prosecutors agreed. “Our review of the facts has concluded that Cpl. Thibault’s belief that he was in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm was reasonable,” said Donovan. “Our review has further concluded that Cpl. Thibault’s use of deadly force was necessary to repel that force.”
Donovan went on to read a note from Brunette’s widow, Barbara, which said, “today’s announcement should not obscure the fact that Wayne Brunette was a loving father, son and husband, and the family’s hopes are that the memory of Wayne will not solely be about the last moments of his life.” Donovan had also spoken with Brunette’s parents, he said, and they asked that law enforcement officials work towards the goal of providing better response to circumstances where mental health is a factor.
“This tragedy is a vivid reminder that more needs to be done, that those efforts need to be accelerated,” Schirling said of his work to improve mental health response systems. His department, he said, has been working with the Howard Center and other partner organizations to develop an appropriate strategy.
“It’s a significant challenge, it’s a resource issue, but we recognize that we can continue to improve the way in which we interface with law enforcement,” said Bob Bick, director of mental health and substance abuse services at the Howard Center. While the center currently has a street outreach team, Bick explained that he’s working to establish a position for a mental health clinician who could “respond appropriately to mental health calls.”
Even though such a clinician would not have been able to change the outcome in this fast-moving situation, Bick acknowledged, “we’d like to believe that there’s an opportunity to change the outcome for some circumstances.”
Both Donovan and Sorell cited the need for law enforcement officials to have a thorough understanding of mental illness. Particularly with the shuttering of the Vermont State Hospital after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Sorrell said, “we need to be aware of the increased demands on law enforcement, and get professionals in dealing with mental health issues on the scene, no matter what the nature of the scene is.”
T.J. Donovan speaks at press conference. Photo by Charles Eichacker.