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Backstory: Story I Wish I Didn't Have to Keep Writing


Published December 28, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

Ralph “Phil” Grenon (left) and Officer David Bowers - COURTESY OF WCAX-TV | BURLINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Of Wcax-tv | Burlington Police Department
  • Ralph “Phil” Grenon (left) and Officer David Bowers

["Police Killing of Mentally Ill Man Raises Questions — Again," March 30]

In hindsight, the deadly March confrontation between Burlington police officers and 76-year-old Ralph "Phil" Grenon seemed almost inevitable.

Grenon, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, had been ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial on criminal charges in 2009. In the months before his death, neighbors called police repeatedly to say he was yelling, threatening them and appeared to be hallucinating.

When police went to his downtown Burlington apartment on March 21, Grenon brandished a knife and refused to surrender. After a five-hour standoff, Grenon charged at heavily armed police with two large knives. They fired a stun gun, and, when that failed to subdue Grenon, Officer David Bowers shot him to death.

For years throughout Vermont, similar confrontations between police and the mentally ill have resulted in deaths and injuries.

In November 2013, just a few miles north of Grenon's home, Burlington police fatally shot New North End resident Wayne Brunette in similar circumstances. Brunette, who a police dispatcher said was experiencing a "mental health issue," charged police with a shovel.

The questions in the aftermath of these incidents never seem to get answered. How could the mental health system allow a person to deteriorate to the point where they become violent and police are summoned? Could police have calmed the situation before the fatal confrontation? Should law enforcement's use-of-force rules change?

"It seems like every six months or so, someone with a severe mental illness is being severely injured or killed by police," said a weary A.J. Ruben, the veteran attorney for Disabilities Rights Vermont, after the Grenon shooting. "And we hear every month that the mental health system is in crisis. The story is the same."

In the weeks after Grenon's death — and the announcement that Bowers had acted lawfully in killing him — people made the usual calls for more help for the mentally ill and for greater patience from police.

But if history is any guide, our 2017 year-in-review issue is likely to feature a similar story.