This commentary is by Allen Gilbert of Worcester, a former journalist, teacher, and ACLU-VT executive director. In 2019, he researched fatal police shootings in Vermont over the 50 years from 1970 to 2019. He followed that in 2020 by examining the previous 50 years, from 1920 to 1969. Gilbert is the author of “Equal Is Equal, Fair Is Fair,” a book on equity issues in Vermont.
The 2010s were an explosive decade for fatal use-of-force by Vermont law enforcement. A record 17 people were killed in police encounters. In four of the 10 years, Vermont had, on a population-proportional basis, a higher police fatality rate than the nation as a whole.
The high Vermont numbers, and increased national attention on police shootings, provided context for the Vermont Legislature in 2020 to consider, and pass, a new police use-of-force law. The law emphasized avoiding the use of deadly force in all but the most extreme circumstances.
History seemed to smile on this initiative. There were no fatal police shootings in Vermont in 2020, the first time in 11 years.
But 2021 led the state back to a persistent pattern, despite the new use-of-force law. Two people were shot dead by police. Vermont’s death rate again surmounted the national average. And, as has been true of all other police shootings in Vermont, both were deemed “justified” by the state attorney general’s office.
The first deadly shooting was Aug. 5 in Hartford, when a Hartford police officer shot and killed 35-year-old Joseph Howard of Bradford.
Howard had been reported standing in someone’s driveway, refusing to leave. When Hartford Cpl. Eric Clifford arrived on the scene, Howard did not obey Clifford’s commands and started walking toward him. Clifford, backing up in an effort to defuse the situation, used pepper spray against Howard. But Clifford fell, Howard rushed him, got Clifford in a chokehold, and started punching him.
Clifford broke away, but Howard then charged him, knocked him to the ground and resumed a chokehold. The attorney general’s office report described what happened next: “After 12 seconds or so of audible struggle, Corporal Clifford fired two shots at close range at Mr. Howard as he strangled him from behind.”
Some Hartford residents questioned why citizen calls to 911 about abnormal behavior routinely result in armed police appearing — “which often triggers people who have addictions or a mental illness. There needs to be an alternative,” the Valley News quoted a community member who helped organize an “Anti-Police Brutality Rally and Vigil” in downtown White River Junction.
The second deadly shooting was later the same month, on Aug. 25 in Rutland. A 33-year-old resident of Coral Gables, Florida, Jonathan Mansilla, fled the scene of a motor vehicle crash and ran to a nearby McDonald’s restaurant, where he entered a bathroom. (Mansilla had been involved in another accident earlier in the day, had fled the scene, and eluded police.)
Rutland City Police Cpl. Christopher Rose confronted Rose in the bathroom, at which point Mansilla allegedly charged him, holding something in his hand that Rose believed was a gun. Fearing for his life, Rose shot Mansilla in the chest, killing him. No one else saw the encounter. Mansilla’s nephew was quoted in a VTDigger story: “I just think there were other ways to go about it than to go in there and shoot him and kill him.”
The use-of-force law (20 V.S.A. § 2368) passed in 2020 states that “a law enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force upon another person only when, based on the totality of the circumstances, such force is objectively reasonable and necessary to (A) defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person; or (B) apprehend a fleeing person for any felony that threatened or resulted in death or serious bodily injury if the officer reasonably believes that the person will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless immediately apprehended.”
This past October, a use-of-force policy developed as guidance for officers went into effect — two months after the two police killings. It begins with a policy statement: “This agency believes in the sanctity of every human life and in the value of deescalation and effective communication. When force is necessary to bring an event or incident under control, officers will use only objectively reasonable force to accomplish lawful objectives.”
In both of the 2021 shootings, the determination of whether the officers’ use of deadly force was necessary, and therefore justified, depended on gauging the subject’s intent and ability to cause death or serious injury to the officer or another person. The policy further suggests efforts must be made to deescalate aggressive actions by a subject in order to protect “the sanctity of every human life.”
One can hope that the two shootings will lead to further guidance of what an officer must do before taking an action that could kill the subject. Such directives would not be unwarranted; already, the new use-of-force law specifically prohibits the use of chokeholds on a suspect. It’s a maneuver that can be as deadly as a gun.
How to address deescalation could narrow the chance that determinations of a killing will remain what seems to be a repetitive response to such tragedies: justified.
It’s unfair for us to ask officers to live with the burden of having shot someone who maybe could still be alive if a different approach had been used -— rather than thinking only a gun can maintain control.