Fatal Shooting

Opinion / Dec. 19, 2013 10:15am EST

Ever since November 6, when a Burlington police officer shot to death a mentally disturbed man who was “armed” with only a shovel, we have been waiting for Vermont Atty. Gen. William Sorrell to exonerate the officer.

Sorrell did not disappoint. This week his office announced that Cpl. Ethan Thibault “was legally justified in the use of deadly force when he discharged his firearm” at Wayne Brunette at point-blank range.

Sorrell’s report, printed in full in this week’s Herald, noted that, even though Brunette was close enough that the policeman felt he was in mortal danger from Brunette’s shovel, his first two shots at Brunette didn’t bring him down. So Thibault shot him twice more.

The report also notes that Cpl. Thibault was accompanied by another Burlington police corporal, Brent Navari, who was also apparently within a few feet of Brunette when the shooting occurred. Navari said he had also been chased by Brunette and had felt endangered.

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Actually, we have no quarrel with the notion that Cpl. Thibault should not be criminally charged in this case. We recognize that police are part of a dangerous profession, and that they should be given the benefit of the doubt when involved in a violent situation.

What we find disappointing in Sorrell’s decision is that once again his report fails to state the obvious: that though there may be no legal liability for the policeman, still it was a terrible outcome that should have been handled better. One wonders about the training that police receive at the Vermont Police Academy. Maybe we’re missing something here, but two officers with service revolvers against one man with a shovel doesn’t sound like a fair fight. Wouldn’t good training have avoided a fatality in this case—a fatality played out in front of the mother of the dead man?

The most troubling aspect of Sorrell’s decision was his implication that the problem resulted, not from poor police response, but from “too much reliance on law enforcement as the first responders to persons experiencing a mental health crisis.”

But people ought to be able to call the cops when they’re in trouble; and police themselves ought to know when they need the help of a mental health worker.

To “subdue” a subject shouldn’t mean to shoot him dead. If that happens, regardless of the legalities, police intervention has been a tragic failure.

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