Police in Burlington, Vt., shot and killed a mentally ill man last week after his mother called the police to report that he was agitated and destroying property. About two minutes after the officer arrived at the home, he shot and killed 29-year-old Wayne Brunette. Police said he was wielding a shovel in a threatening way, according to Seven Days, a Vermont news outlet. The incident was the first time Burlington police have fired a gun in the line of duty in 16 years.
Not many other details are yet available about the November 6 incident. The family has declined to speak with reporters and neighbors who witnessed the incident simply confirm that Cpl. Ethan Thibault fired several shots at Brunette. But WPTZ News Channel 5 reports that police had been to the home twice before, without any escalation to violence. In a very similar incident in 2003, an officer arrived at Brunette’s home looking for a man who allegedly assaulted someone in a supermarket. When they arrived Brunette came out with a baseball bat in what the officer said was a threatening manner, and refused to put it down even after he raised his gun. This time, however, he didn’t use his gun, and he later told police that Brunette’s gait, and the fact that he was walking rather than running influenced their decision not to fire. Police also responded to call from Brunette’s wife in 2001, and found explosives in his closet. After both incidents, he was admitted to a state hospital for mental illness and charges were dropped, without incident.
This is the second incident last week in which a call to police for help resulted in the fatal shooting of a family member. In Iowa, police shot and killed 19-year-old Tyler Comstock, who drove away in his father’s truck after a dispute over a pack of cigarettes. His father called the police to intervene, but the incident escalated into a high-speed chase that ended with police shooting Comstock on the Iowa State University campus.
The Iowa shooting was deemed “justified” by the county attorney, who found that Comstock was using his vehicle as a weapon. The Burlington shooting is still under investigation. Burlington police regulations allow an officer to use deadly force “to protect him/herself or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.” They also guide officers to consider the “size of the suspect, type of weapon or other instrument the suspect is wielding, the location of the encounter, prior dealings with the suspect, the subject’s response to verbal commands, and the availability of cover for officers,” according to Seven Days.
Police force against the mentally ill is particularly problematic. A study by the Portland Press Herald in Maine found that nearly half of people shot by police since 2000 were mentally ill, and that police lack proper training on defusing deadly conflicts. And a Justice Department investigation found a pattern of police abuse against the mentally ill in Portland, Oregon.