Courtesy of Lisa Webber | Burlington Police Department
Douglas Kilburn (left) and Officer Cory Campbell
Updated at 5:28 p.m.
The Burlington police officer who punched a man who later died will not face criminal charges, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said at a press conference Friday attended by the man’s family.
Donovan said Officer Cory Campbell was legally justified when he delivered three blows to Douglas Kilburn's face during a March 11 argument outside of the emergency room at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
The attorney general called the case “troubling,” however, and faulted the cop for “antagonistic” actions that provoked Kilburn, in poor mental and physical health at the time, to lash out. Donovan called for continued police training on ways to deescalate tense situations.
The AG said he based his decision on conclusions by a national use-of-force expert, who found that Campbell had acted in self-defense because Kilburn swung at the officer first.
“This was a tragic situation that, frankly, could have been avoided,” Donovan said.
Kilburn’s widow, Sherry Kilburn, shook her head from the audience as Donovan announced his decision. Speaking to the media afterward, she said that the officer should have been charged.
“He murdered my husband, and now his life goes on. And my husband can’t,” she said.
Sherry was in critical condition inside the hospital when the altercation took place. Doug was there to visit her but had gotten into a loud argument with private security guards. He was yelling at the guards from the driver’s window of his SUV when Campbell showed up.
The officer told Kilburn to “shut the fuck up and leave,” body camera video showed.
“Did you just swear at me? You’re a fucking punk!” Kilburn replied.
Campbell turned around and walked back toward the driver’s window. Kilburn opened the door and swung his feet out. Campbell put his hand on the car door, then on Kilburn’s left shoulder.
"You ain't got a right to swear at me, motherfucker," Kilburn said, swinging an arm toward Campbell, striking but not injuring him.
Campbell’s return punches left Kilburn with a broken jaw and orbital bone. He died three days later.
The controversy surrounding the encounter was further complicated by a politicized dispute over whether Campbell’s punches even contributed to Kilburn’s death.
The case set off a season of turmoil for Burlington police after Chief Brandon del Pozo and Mayor Miro Weinberger made an unusual, behind-the-scenes intervention in the state’s death investigation.
Del Pozo quietly tried to convince the state’s health commissioner to change a “homicide” death classification reached by the state medical examiner. Del Pozo also solicited help from the mayor, whose office made a last-minute request to Gov. Phil Scott to delay public release of the “homicide” finding so the city could press its argument.
On Friday, Kilburn’s adult son, Tyler, addressed del Pozo and Weinberger directly to chastise them for corruptive “insider politics.”
“I find it appalling that you as a chief of police would interfere with an ongoing investigation, with cooperation from the mayor’s office,” he said.
Kilburn’s son explained that his father, an “incredibly loving man” and musician, was battling mental health issues following multiple strokes.
“He was winning this fight. He was getting better each and every day with hard work and dedication,” Tyler said. “My dad needed help, not handcuffs.”
Attorney General T.J. Donovan
Donovan himself stopped short of criticizing Burlington city leaders, acknowledging only that he’d urged del Pozo to let the investigation play out and that they’d complied.
Campbell has been assigned to administrative tasks since March and will return to patrol for his next scheduled shift, del Pozo said. The department will conduct an internal review of the officer’s conduct, primarily focused on his profanity. Any discipline is unlikely to include suspension or termination, del Pozo said.
The chief stood by his own actions, saying he and Weinberger raised “legitimate concerns” through their normal channels.
“My sympathies go out with the family,” he said. The mayor's spokesperson said del Pozo would be speaking on his behalf.
Del Pozo said Kilburn’s death has prompted introspection among members of his police force. “Every officer that I know has watched this body camera footage and discussed this and is very reflective about what he or she can do to avoid agitating people,” he said.
Burlington Police Officers Association president Dan Gilligan had a different conclusion.
“The big takeaway from this is that we are scrutinized for whatever we do,” he said. “I have done all those things [Campbell] has done before and had great success with it. Sometimes things just don’t work out.”
Campbell did not allow Vermont State Police to interview him and has made no public statements about the incident. Gilligan said Campbell did not intend to comment on the AG’s finding clearing him of criminal conduct.
Public scrutiny of Burlington police has mounted since Kilburn’s death. Two black men sued the department for excessive force for separate downtown bar-close incidents that occurred in 2018. Video of those incidents came to light over the summer. The footage showed cops knocking the men unconscious, without warning.
The Burlington City Council responded by forming a committee to review police practices. The committee’s work is ongoing.