Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan speaks at a press conference announcing he will not file charges against a Burlington police officer for shooting and killing a knife-wielding man in March.
This post was updated at 3:15 p.m. on May 11, 2016.
A Burlington police officer’s decision to shoot a knife-wielding mentally ill man in March was legally justified, authorities said Tuesday.
Ralph “Phil” Grenon, 76, who was killed, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had stopped taking his medication. Police and his family questioned how treatment providers allowed him to deteriorate without being hospitalized in the months before he was killed.
Police were called to his apartment on College Street on March 2. Grenon was yelling and threatening people. After five hours of attempted negotiations, Grenon approached a team of heavily armed officers inside his apartment swinging two large knives, and was shot.
Ralph “Phil” Grenon and Officer David Bowers
Both Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan and Attorney General Bill Sorrell determined that Police Officer David Bowers was protecting himself and fellow officers when he fired six shots at Grenon.
“It’s clear that any charges against Officer Bowers are not supported by the evidence,” Donovan’s chief deputy prosecutor, Bram Kranichfeld, said during a press conference.
Grenon’s daughter, Niki Grenon Carpenter, an Arizona resident, said she agreed with prosecutors’ decisions. However, she said she had “misgivings” about how both treatment providers and police failed to care for her father in his last months. She said the family repeatedly asked doctors to have Grenon involuntarily committed to a hospital before he died.
“We tried a number of times to get that process started and were told that he did not meet the criteria for that,” said Grenon Carpenter, who spoke during the press conference via speaker phone. “It was loophole after loophole.”
Grenon had begun to hear voices in the months before his death and stopped taking his medication when it failed to quell them, Grenon Carpenter said. “He was not violent by nature,” she said. “He was a wonderful man, greatly loved, and I hope he is remembered for who he was and not the last few hours of his life.”
That night, police officers were already planning to visit Grenon at the request of a Street Outreach Team mental health worker and got a call about his yelling as they were on the way. Officers Durwin Ellerman and Bowers entered the apartment, but Grenon clutched two large knives and told them to leave. They retreated.
A team of officers gathered outside his apartment and tried for hours to persuade Grenon to surrender.
Around 9:15 p.m., a heavily armed team of eight officers stormed his apartment after Grenon did not respond to knocks on the door and phone calls. They found Grenon standing in his bathtub holding a knife.
“We’re here to help you, but you need to put the knife down first,” Sgt. James Trieb said, according to Donovan’s report. “Your daughter and your grandkids are worried about you and we want to make sure you’re safe. Can you please help us?”
Grenon did not respond and approached officers with the knives in his hands, Donovan said. Ellerman fired his Taser at Grenon, but it failed to subdue him. He approached the officers again, and Bowers opened fire with his service pistol when Grenon was five feet away, Donovan reported.
Four of Bowers’ six shots hit Grenon, who was pronounced dead at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
“He’s the man we were trying to serve that night,” Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said. “We consider our efforts a failure.”
Del Pozo said he will soon release to the media video footage of the incident captured by officers’ body cameras. However, he and Donovan urged reporters not to release unedited footage of what he said is a “graphic” encounter.
Donovan and del Pozo said that Grenon should have received help for his mental illness long before that night.
Generally, a person must be deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily committed to a hospital, but law enforcement officers and some mental health advocates have long said that the bar for forcing someone to receive treatment is too high.
“We’re almost setting ourselves up for failure,” said Donovan.