- courtesy of Jennifer Hauck/valley news
- Ryan Palmer
Last November, the Windsor Police Department chalked up what seemed like a victory in its local war on drugs. Two officers had set up a drug-buy sting. When their target's car allegedly sped toward them, one of the officers opened fire, wounding the driver. Still, no cops were hurt, and a brief chase netted two suspects, both with histories of drug arrests. The driver was charged with aggravated assault of a law-enforcement officer.
But the case against him soon crumbled. Days later, the local prosecutor dropped the charge, saying a video of the incident contradicted the account given by Ryan Palmer, the officer who shot the man.
A second surprising blow came in July: Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced he was filing criminal charges against Palmer. The drug suspects Palmer arrested are now witnesses against him.
It has been rare for police in Vermont to face charges for using excessive force. Sorrell, whose office typically investigates police shootings, has generally cleared officers. In the wake of recent deadly police interactions across the country, is this a reaction to increasing scrutiny of law enforcement?
Windsor Police Chief William Sampson said that he is upset with Sorrell and he is standing by Palmer.
"It's a fluid situation, and he reacted as he was trained, as he had to," Sampson said. "It's an officer's perception of the dangers he is facing, so it's difficult for anyone to say, 'You should have done this.'" Charging police with crimes for judgments made in a "gray area" will make officers less proactive on the street, he said.
On the day in question, Sunday, November 16, 2014, Windsor police were after Brittany Smith, who had outstanding arrest warrants on charges of dealing heroin. Smith, a 25-year-old Claremont, N.H. resident, had exchanged Facebook messages with a woman who said she was interested in buying drugs, according to police affidavits. In fact, the would-be buyer was cooperating with Windsor police and tipped off Palmer. A deal was supposed to go down at 4 p.m. in the parking lot of Ferguson's Automotive, a car-repair shop.
Police had only a couple of hours to plan.
Palmer, 28, drafted a longtime friend, Meghan Place, to pose as the buyer. Place drove Palmer's pickup to the scene, a narrow parking lot directly off Route 5, just a few blocks from downtown Windsor, and waited. The car-repair shop was closed. Officer Christopher Connor and Palmer, wearing baseball caps and civilian clothes over their police shirts, sat nearby in Connor's truck.
Within minutes, a Honda pulled into the parking lot. Smith sat in the front passenger seat. Driving was Jorge Burgos, a 36-year-old Latino man who has a criminal record in Vermont and Massachusetts.
Connor and Palmer drew their guns and ran toward the Honda.
The Honda sped forward and Palmer fired his .40-caliber Glock 22 into the car. Burgos steered the car onto Route 5 and sped past two marked police cars that were rushing to the scene. He led police on a brief chase before several cruisers boxed him in about eight miles away, in Claremont, N.H.
Burgos told officers that he couldn't raise his left arm — he had been shot. He underwent surgery at a nearby hospital. Smith was taken to prison.
As is customary in police shootings, an outside agency — in this case, the Vermont State Police — was called in to investigate.
"Officer Palmer indicated that he fired what he believed to be three rounds at the operator, as the operator accelerated the vehicle towards him while in very close proximity," Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Robert Patten wrote in an affidavit.
Connor told Patten a similar story. He said that Burgos had driven "straight towards" Palmer: "Officer Connor was adamant that had Officer Palmer not been able to sidestep, Burgos would have run him over."
A few days later, investigators discovered that Ferguson's had a security camera covering the parking lot. The tape, which did not have audio, apparently contradicted the officers' accounts. It showed Palmer standing well to the side of the Honda — not in front of it — when he opened fire, according to police affidavits.
When confronted with the footage, "Officer Palmer pointed out the portion of the video where he believed he began firing at the operator of the [Honda]," Patten wrote. "Officer Palmer indicated that although it was his perspective that he was in front of the [Honda] when it began spinning its tires and accelerating forward, the video makes it appear as if he's alongside the front driver's side wheel."
In interviews with police, Burgos was adamant that he hadn't tried to run anyone over. He said that he didn't know that Palmer and Connor were cops: He simply saw two men, guns drawn, wearing civilian clothes, suddenly charge him. Burgos said the officers never identified themselves, though they both told investigators that they shouted "Police!" Palmer and Conner are both white.
Windsor County State's Attorney Michael Kainen said that when he saw the video, he decided he couldn't prove that Burgos had attempted to injure Palmer.
"Originally, it sounded to me as though Ryan was more in front of the car than he was when we watched the video," Kainen said in an interview. "It didn't look to me as though we could get a conviction."
Smith was incarcerated in New Hampshire. Burgos was freed, but within months, he was arrested on drug charges in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Palmer returned to active duty. Though the state police were still conducting their inquiry, Sampson assumed Palmer would be cleared. "I thought it was over," Sampson said. "I didn't feel there was anything more than a typical investigation to declare it was fine. I wasn't concerned."
The chief's feelings were understandable. Vermont police officers have used potentially deadly force — sometimes killing people — dozens of times in recent years and have been cleared of wrongdoing.
In 18 years in office, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell has declined to bring charges in dozens of such cases. A rare exception was in 2013, when, along with Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, Sorrell obtained an indictment against former Winooski police officer Jason Nokes, who shot and wounded an unarmed mentally ill man. Nokes eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors.
Sorrell declined to prosecute a trooper who in 2012 fired a Taser at an unarmed mentally ill Thetford man who died. Sorrell also declined to prosecute three Brattleboro officers who shot a mentally ill man with a knife who allegedly walked toward them inside a church.
Critics say Sorrell's office is too reluctant to charge officers.
"It's very, very rare," said Springfield attorney and former state legislator Tom Costello, who represented the family of the Brattleboro man. "It's left to the victims, to tort law, to [civil] courts."
But in July, seven months after the Windsor bust, Sorrell announced that he would prosecute Palmer. A grand jury returned indictments for aggravated assault with a weapon, a felony, and reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor. Palmer faces up to 16 years in prison. "We thought it was an appropriate case to bring to the grand jury," Sorrell said. "We present the evidence we think is relevant."
Palmer's attorney, Dan Sedon, said the charges are baseless. "His actions were lawful and performed in the course of his duty," Sedon said.
The 10-member Windsor Police Department has, for years, handled patrol work in its community of 3,500 and left drug investigations to the state police.
That changed when Sampson was hired as chief in August 2014 from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in Florida. He named Palmer and Connor detectives, assigned primarily to drug investigations. It was a response to a surge of drugs coming into southern Vermont from out of state, Sampson said.
"We will be aggressive," Sampson said in a recent interview. "We're not going to sit back and let it happen. We will make arrests."
But the chief acknowledged that Palmer and Connor had received no special training in drug enforcement before they set up the sting involving Smith and Burgos. He said he hopes to get them training in the future. According to department records reviewed by Seven Days, Palmer, a seven-year officer, had never pulled his gun before the November incident.
"I think he is a good officer. I am, frankly, pretty sympathetic to Ryan," Kainen said.
Palmer grew up in Windsor, graduated from Windsor High School and is an Air Force veteran who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most police officers who face an inquiry are placed on leave. But Sampson has allowed Palmer to remain on duty — though he has been limited to desk duty and, because of a judge's order, given up his gun.
Even those officials who support Palmer acknowledge there were flaws in the raid.
Officials say it is highly unusual for a civilian such as Place to participate in a drug raid. Further complicating matters, Place is the victims' advocate in the Windsor County State's Attorney's Office. She often sits in court and serves as a liaison between crime victims and prosecutors. Place told Seven Days she supports the department's fight against drugs. "When Ryan approached me that day, I was happy to assist in these efforts," she said.
"It wasn't the best-thought-out operation, is what I would say," Kainen said.
Sampson said that an internal investigation, which will begin when the criminal case ends, will focus on how Connor and Palmer carried out the bust.
Sampson and Sedon said that Sorrell's decision to file charges may have been influenced by a string of national controversies about video-documented police actions. "We have a climate in this country right now of taking [police] cases to grand juries," Sampson said.
Kainen agreed. "I think there's greater concern by prosecutors looking at officers' use of force given what's happening nationally, and that may be why," Kainen said.
But Sorrell, who will face a primary challenge from Donovan in 2016, scoffed at any suggestion that he has been influenced by outside events. "We have a standard that we have brought to these cases for a long time," Sorrell said. "We take a hard look at these."
He acknowledged he might struggle to convince 12 jurors to convict a well-liked police officer. Windsor residents have posted supportive comments on social media and reached out to Sampson to voice what he called "overwhelming" backing for Palmer. Said Sorrell: "I think the average citizen gives even more benefit of the doubt to an officer than an average citizen. But we haven't been afraid to bring tough cases to juries."