Panel: Troopers should leave line of duty for longer after shooting cases

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By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger.org

A Vermont State Police review of how it handles troopers after critical incidents, including fatal shootings, calls for them to have more time away from front line duty.

The recommendation is included in a report issued Thursday that comes on the heels of three fatal shootings involving state police troopers in a six month span, with one trooper, Christopher Brown, firing shots in each one.

“Our committee was just tasked with looking at the administrative process after the critical incident and looking at it through the lens of, are we really being as thoughtful as we should be?” state police Maj. Ingrid Jonas, Support Services Division commander and a member of the committee issuing the report, said Thursday.

Past practice has been for troopers to be placed on paid administrative leave for a minimum of three days if they had been involved in a shooting resulting in serious injury or death.

The report from the Critical Incident Administrative Review Committee calls for raising that to five days. And, in another change, the report recommends that troopers not return to full duty at the end of that period.

Instead, the report states that troopers should be placed on “administrative duty status” pending the outcome of a review of the officer-involved shooting by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the local state’s attorney, a process that could run several months.

“We have had some major incidents recently where there were several members involved in officer-involved shootings and our policy was insufficient in that those members, according to our policy, would be administrative leave for three days and then back to regular duty,” Jonas said.

“By doing that we put those members in a position to where they could conceivably get involved in another critical incident” while the previous one remains under review by prosecutors.

Administrative duty status, according to the report, includes performing non-law enforcement functions, such as processing evidence and writing reports.

A trooper on “administrative duty status” will continue to carry a firearm, dress in business attire and use an unmarked vehicle, according to the committee’s report.

“While on administrative duty status members are directed to not engage in or initiate enforcement functions unless exigent circumstances exist,” the report stated.

Critical incidents that can “affect the wellness” of a member of the state police not involving lethal force, such as having responded to a fatal motor vehicle crash or handling a case involving the death of a child, could also lead to a person being placed on “administrative duty-status” on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s going to be new for us,” Jonas said. “We certainly know that there are people who experience extreme stress from cases.”

Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson and Col. Matthew Birmingham, state police director, say they will adopt the committee recommendations “in full.”

Steve Ijames, described by state police as a nationally recognized expert in the use of force by law enforcement, has also been meeting this week with top state police brass and other members. He is expected to issue additional recommendations .

The six-person committee that issued its report Thursday included top officials of the State Police, the Vermont Troopers Association, human resources and the department’s clinician.

State police troopers were involved in three fatal shooting from September into February. They included:

• In Poultney on Sept. 1, 2017, five members of the state police tactical team opened fire and killed 32-year-old Michael Battles after he pointed a weapon — later determined to be a BB-gun — at officers from a second-story window in his home during a standoff.

• In Montpelier on Jan. 16, nine law enforcement officers opened fire and killed Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex, on a field Montpelier High School after police say he robbed a credit union are back at work. Police said Giffin issued threats and made suicidal statements, and he displayed a handgun — later identified as a BB gun. Those firing shots included eight members of the state police and a corporal from the Montpelier Police Department.

• In Bolton on Feb. 11 when a state trooper and a member of the Richmond Police Department opened fire, killing Benjamin Gregware, 43, of Sheldon. Police said Gregware, who had made suicidal comments, had just pulled over on Interstate 89 in Bolton, got of his vehicle, and held a gun to his head and refused orders to put it down as traffic passed on the interstate.

Trooper Christopher Brown was involved in all three shooting, the first two as members of the state police tactical team. Following the Bolton shooting, Birmingham said Brown had been placed on paid administrative leave pending a review of the case by prosecutors, which is ongoing. He is also no longer a tactical team member.

Prosecutors are also continuing to review the Montpelier shooting. The troopers, including Brown, involved in the first fatal shooting in Poultney, were cleared of any wrongdoing by prosecutors.

The report issued Thursday also calls for establishing a protocol to review a trooper’s membership on special teams, including the tactical unit, if they are involved in more than one shooting involving serious or death within two years.

“The committee noted that it had concerns with current practices that could place members in a position to employ lethal force within a short time frame of a previous incident and/or while legal review of a previous incident was ongoing,” according to a statement accompanying the report.

To address the mental health and wellness of state police members involving in a critical incident, the report recommends following the guidelines set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, many which are already being followed.

In addition, the report recommended monthly check-ins with a trooper involved in a critical incident by a clinician for six months.

Another recommendation calls for state to improve its tracking and reporting of critical incidents by the Members Assistance Team.

Members of the committee included:

-Capt. James Whitcomb, staff operations commander.

-Lt. David Petersen, professional standards commander.

-Sarah Adams, human resources director.

-Michael O’Neil, Vermont Troopers Association president.

-Lori Gurney, state police department clinician.

-Maj. Ingrid Jonas, Support Services Division commander.

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