To the Editor:
I breathed a sigh of relief when Governor Scott allowed the new statewide use of force legislation to become law, rather than vetoing it. Why? Over the past 10 years, 17 people have been killed by Vermont police. And upon review by the Attorney General’s office, all have been deemed “justified.”
Under the old law, all that mattered was the situation at the time force was used. The entire sequence of events leading up to that moment was irrelevant in deciding if deadly force was justified.
The new law requires that an officer’s use of force be evaluated by looking at “the totality of the circumstances” that led to the use of force. And if the officer knows a person has a medical or mental condition, that has to be taken into account in deciding how much force is necessary.
A 2016 case illustrates why the new law was needed. Phil Grenon, a 76-year-old Burlington man in a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by a young Burlington police officer in what began as a welfare check. The police presence scared Mr. Grenon, who took shelter in his bathroom shower. After being pepper balled and tazed, he lunged at the police with a knife and was shot.
In deciding the force was justified, all that mattered was the moment he lunged with a knife. The police actions before the lunge, which escalated the encounter until a distressed and vulnerable man felt threatened enough to defend himself, were irrelevant. Mr. Grenon was not a public safety threat, just someone in a health crisis. He needed help getting through that crisis, not punishment and death.
Those of us who support the law feel that it can save lives by encouraging the use of de-escalation measures. Some disagree — there were some in Governor Scott’s administration who urged him to veto it — because they think the new language is too vague, too open to interpretation. I understand their concern, but how many more of us would have to die before action was taken to protect people in crisis?
Killing anyone is horrible. Killing someone with a health issue because police actions exacerbate the health issue is unforgivable and immoral. We need to make this work, for all our sakes.