Rutland City Cops Have Shot Three People in Two Years — and They Don’t Wear Body Cameras | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Rutland City Cops Have Shot Three People in Two Years — and They Don’t Wear Body Cameras

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Jonathan Daniel Mansilla - PHOTO COURTESY JESSICA MANSILLA
  • Photo Courtesy Jessica Mansilla
  • Jonathan Daniel Mansilla

It started in a Goodwill parking lot. Jonathan Daniel Mansilla, of Miami, Fla., hit another car with his black Chevy Cobalt and fled the Rutland store. Less than an hour later, the person whose car Mansilla hit spotted the Cobalt in Wallingford, about 10 miles south, and alerted the Rutland County Sheriff's Department.

A deputy pulled over Mansilla, who again fled, this time driving north on Route 7 back toward Rutland. A different deputy approached the Cobalt in a driveway in Clarendon. Again, Mansilla drove off.

As the Florida man neared Rutland Regional Medical Center, the deputies ended their increasingly dangerous pursuit. Soon afterward, Mansilla slammed into the back of a UPS truck at a busy intersection with Route 7. He ran from the mangled car into a nearby McDonald's, where he hid inside the lone stall of the men's bathroom.

Rutland police Cpl. Christopher Rose was in the area and followed Mansilla inside the restaurant and into the bathroom. Seconds later, Rose shot Mansilla twice in the chest, killing him instantly.

In an interview with state investigators, Rose said Mansilla, 33, charged toward him with an arm up, holding what Rose thought was a weapon but was actually a cellphone.

That explanation doesn't make sense to the dead man's 29-year-old nephew, David Heria. His uncle "Lefty" had anxiety and was listed on his Vermont death certificate as disabled. "I think he was just panicking," Heria, who lives in Miami, said of Mansilla's evasive behavior on August 25. He doubts the officer's account that Mansilla charged him. "My uncle's not a fighter," he said.

Video footage could provide an answer, but none exists, because Rutland police officers do not wear body cameras. So, as investigators and prosecutors review the shooting to determine whether Rose's actions were reasonable, they have little to go on beyond the words of the officer who pulled the trigger.

Rutland's force is among more than two dozen police departments across Vermont that still do not outfit their officers with body cameras. Unlike some of its peer departments, Rutland does not yet have a concrete plan to adopt them. And some in the city, including the longtime chair of the citizen oversight committee, don't see a need, despite three police shootings in the last two years.

"I just feel like, at this point in Rutland, there isn't a credibility gap that would be solved with the use of bodycam technology," the chair, Sean Sargeant, said.

In the weeks following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Vermont law enforcement leaders recommended that all police be required to don body cameras on patrol. Lawmakers did not follow suit, but they did pass legislation in June 2020 mandating them for all Vermont State Police troopers. Lawmakers also required any agency that uses bodycams to abide by a new model policy that is currently being completed.

Bodycams are no longer seen as a panacea for America's policing problems, but most reform advocates consider them important tools for improving transparency and accountability. They are expensive, which has slowed adoption, and entail nuanced questions around privacy, record keeping and disclosure. A Vermont Department of Public Safety report from December 2020 estimated that it would cost at least $1 million to buy the 350 cameras needed to outfit the remaining municipal and county departments across the state, plus $235,000 in annual software licenses. Ongoing video storage costs, not included in the analysis, are also substantial.

Even without state funding assistance or a mandate, the renewed focus on bodycams at the state level has prompted some Vermont communities to pursue them. Colchester, which had taken a wait-and-see approach to bodycams for years, decided to purchase them this summer using money from the police department's fund of seized assets.

"We enjoy, we believe, a fairly high level of trust in our community here in Colchester," Chief Douglas Allen said. "But this is going to add to it."

Shawn Burke, the South Burlington police chief, added body cameras to his department's long-term capital plan last year and will soon request city funding to purchase them in 2022. In Montpelier, a volunteer citizen committee that has been reviewing the city's police force recently recommended that the department adopt bodycams, with support from municipal leadership.

"We thought that they could provide an independent record of engagements with police, provide more transparency to the public on police practices and, when necessary, ensure officer accountability," committee chair Alyssa Schuren said.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont have viewed bodycams as something of a double-edged sword. The ACLU objected to the existing statewide model policy, developed in 2016, on the grounds that it didn't include adequate privacy protections or guards against misuse.

A revised version of the policy, expected to be adopted by the Criminal Justice Council this fall, addresses several of the ACLU's concerns, legal director Lia Ernst said. It bars most recording in schools and requires that an officer obtain consent to record inside someone's home under most circumstances. The policy also outlines how long departments must preserve video footage — seven years for a nonviolent arrest and indefinitely for major incidents. Ernst wishes the policy had clearer language around releasing footage to the public and an absolute ban on use of facial recognition software, but she said the draft "is a significant step in the right direction."

One reason Rutland has not pursued body cameras was uncertainty about how long to retain old footage, Chief Brian Kilcullen said in an interview. Kilcullen said he is reconsidering in light of the new statewide policy that's under development and will "very likely" put forward a budget proposal for bodycams next month.

"I think those issues, to some extent, have gone away, and I think it's worth looking at again," he said.

Other, smaller law enforcement agencies in Rutland County already use bodycams, even if somewhat grudgingly. "When I started in law enforcement, people believed the police," Rutland Town Police Chief Ed Dumas said, "and nowadays, nobody believes us." Rutland County State's Attorney Rose Kennedy said the cameras are "invaluable" and have "provided important evidence in proving cases and providing a record of what actually occurred."

The City of Rutland currently has a cruiser-mounted video system, which Sargeant, the police commission chair, believes is sufficient.

"Once or twice a month," the commission hears from citizens who accuse an officer of conducting a bad stop or profiling them, Sargeant said. "When I get these calls and we go through the dashcam video, we find evidence that doesn't really support some of these claims," he said. "Now, if there were many more claims that we couldn't resolve, then maybe we would have a discussion about deploying body cameras."

Asked whether he would want to have bodycam footage of last month's shooting, Sargeant said he wasn't in a position to make that call, adding that Vermont State Police had not taken issue with the lack of it during reviews of a nonfatal Rutland police shooting in July 2020 and a fatal one in October 2019.

In recent years, Kennedy, the state's attorney, has notified defense attorneys of credibility issues involving six Rutland police officers — by far the most of any department in the state, according to a 2020 investigation by VTDigger.org. In at least one case, Kennedy issued the letter when video of an incident contradicted the officer's written account, VTDigger reported.

Sargeant emphasized that the dashcam system also includes a wearable microphone that provides an audio recording of an officer "100 percent of the time they're on patrol."

Cpl. Christopher Rose - COURTESY OF VERMONT STATE POLICE
  • Courtesy Of Vermont State Police
  • Cpl. Christopher Rose

Not quite. Rose wasn't wearing a body microphone when he shot Mansilla last month, according to Scott Dunlap, commander of Vermont State Police's major crimes unit, which is investigating the case. Dunlap said he wasn't sure why.

Nor was the encounter captured by McDonald's surveillance cameras, which do not have a view of the bathrooms, leaving investigators with no recording of the shooting itself. No witnesses were in the bathroom, either.

Rose sat for an interview with Vermont State Police detectives on September 8, two weeks after the shooting. By then, he was represented by an attorney who had already obtained and viewed dashcam video of the events leading up to the shooting, through records requests to the Rutland and County Sheriff's offices. "That was against our wishes," Dunlap said.

The Vermont State Police does not typically interview an officer involved in a shooting if he or she has already viewed video of it, on the grounds that can taint their recollection. In this case, Dunlap said the agency consulted with the Attorney General's Office and decided to interview Rose anyway, because the videos didn't show what happened inside the McDonald's.

The ACLU strenuously objects to such practices and contends that officers should never be able to view bodycam or any other recording before making statements about uses of force or in response to complaints about their conduct — a privilege not afforded to other subjects of criminal investigations. Multiple new state model policies, as written, would expressly bar officers from viewing any recording before giving a statement during investigations into the use of lethal force.

It's not the first time the Rutland police chief has provided video to officers during a police shooting investigation. He did the same in 2019, when officers shot and killed the son of former mayor Christopher Louras. (The shooting was later deemed justified.)

Kilcullen acknowledged that his practice will be prohibited by a statewide use-of-force policy, which takes effect on October 1. Seven Days requested Rutland dashcam video of the Mansilla pursuit, but the department did not respond by press time.

Dunlap expects to turn over the Vermont State Police's report on the shooting to the attorney general and the Bennington County state's attorney by the end of this week to determine whether criminal charges against Rose are warranted. Kennedy recused her office from the review.

Based on the evidence detectives gathered, including Rose's account, Dunlap said the officer identified himself when he entered the bathroom but no other words were exchanged. He stood just inside the bathroom door, holding it open with his foot, and noticed Mansilla's legs behind the stall door, about 10 feet from the bathroom entrance. The shooting took place between the bathroom door and the door to the stall. Rose was uninjured.

Dunlap said bodycam footage would have "definitely help[ed]" the investigation.

"The bodycam normally points forward from the officer," he said, "which would give us a view of what happened inside the bathroom."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Shot Not Taken"