I live in Chester and have wondered when an officer-involved shooting with resultant death was going to occur in our “neck of the woods.” I consider Ludlow our “neck of the woods,” a town where my husband has worked for 37 years.

On Aug. 15 of this year, a local man was experiencing a crisis. According to all reports he had called 911 more than two dozen times that afternoon. Not sure what else a person in distress is able to do to notify his very community that he was in need of help. Not sure what the 911 protocol is when they receive multiple calls from an individual in crisis. Shouldn’t there be a non-police crisis intervention team sent to respond in some way? Work the phones, call the family, call the neighbors, something other than what happened here on this very sad day?

Apparently, after this individual crashed his car he did not deescalate quickly enough for the responding officers. A look into the vehicle showed a gun on the seat. Possibly miscommunication from one officer to the next, and a 21-year-old officer, fresh from the police academy, shot to kill, and kill he did. Not instantly, but ten days later. This community member died after a fierce battle for his life. The very life that was too much for him on that Aug. 15 day.

In our country, should we expect our community members’ lives, who suffer from depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, or any other brain diseases, to be viewed through a different lens by the police? Is shooting the first resort rather than the last? Other poor alternatives for these individuals is an arrest, followed by jail. Once jailed, they are out of sight and out of mind. In jail, there is a complete lack of supportive psychiatric care that is both deserved and needed.

According to Alisha Roth, who visited jails across our country, determined in her book “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” that 50% of those imprisoned suffer from a mental illness. I guess our country does not value these individuals, in jail, or out of jail. We do not allocate enough money from the state or the federal government to fund meaningful and accessible mental health care. These folks are our mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, friends, and fathers.

Now back to “our neck of the woods.” Other than 911, what else failed our fallen community member? The training of the very police who shot him. The shooter, a 21-year-old officer, fresh from the academy, was riding with an officer who has a Brady letter from the State’s Attorney in Rutland. This means he was dishonest in his job and he cannot be a witness for any court case. A defense attorney knows that an officer with a Brady letter who brings charges against an individual can not testify and the defense will win the case. A Brady letter does not deter an officer from moving to another town for work, and move this officer did: to Ludlow. He was teaching our young officer “the ropes.”

Let’s examine part of the curriculum from the police academy to gain a better understanding of what this new officer knew: To be a level III officer in the state of Vermont, a person must attend the Police Academy for a 16-week course. Of note, in the curriculum, community policing is given four hours of training; deescalation training, eight hours. Use of force and tactics provide 54 hours of training and firearms another 49 hours. This raises the question, is 21 too young to have this kind of responsibility, with this skeletal thin training, with an emphasis on force and shooting?

According to state police, no shots were fired by the victim, yet a gun was spotted in the passenger seat. The report said it was not fired, but opened the door to victim blaming by saying it could have misfired. Shouldn’t that have been reported after a thorough review of the incident? This “off the cuff” statement is not based on fact, and I consider it a great disservice to the deceased and his family. Furthermore, our community member died on Aug. 25, yet the state police failed to report this to the public until Sept. 6th. When asked why they didn’t release this to the public, the response from state police was that they “were too busy.”

Officer involved shootings (OIS) are tracked in our state. There have been 47 of these since 1977. We may think to ourselves “oh, that’s not too bad.” Not too bad? Although not all fatal, one is too many when a person is in crisis. One is too many when it is your family. Ask the Fortunati family whose son was gunned down by a swat team. The family called for help, and their son was executed in the woods. When these OIS are investigated, they are classified as justified, or unjustified. This word “justified” haunts Mr. Fortunati senior to this day. He can’t get over this finding when he attended court and depositions. He knew what happened in the woods that day were far from “justified.”

What is remarkable in our state is that every one of these police shootings were found to be “justified” after an investigation. How amazing is it that in Vermont all of our people who were shot, deserved it! That sure makes me feel safe. Nothing to see here folks.

According to Paul Butler from Georgetown Law School, 90% of police calls involve mental health and other similar crisis. It is true to say that we can’t expect the police to be able to handle these complex issues, but there are non-violent measures that can and should be used. Annual 40-hour crisis intervention training needs to be state mandated for all police departments. We need more resources put into mental health care in our state. We need a response team that works with the police and a health care agency. Madison, Wis., Denver, Colo., and Portland, Ore. are among many other cities and states that have mental health response teams. They have figured out that people in a mental health crisis cannot follow commands and don’t deserve to be shot because escalation techniques taught to police to “gain control of the situation” make matters worse.

Time for our communities to call our legislatures and demand appropriate funding for more mental health treatment facilities, as well as to demand crisis response teams who are educated and can respond to our folks in crisis. We need a community net to catch those who need it. We need to care for each other when times are tough.

Finally, we need social services embedded with police. We cannot expect our police to be therapists, but we also shouldn’t accept an excessive use of force response to a community member in crisis. I can almost guarantee that when this investigation is over, it will be deemed “justified,” and that is simply wrong.

Rest in peace Michael, gone too soon.

— Leslie Thorsen

This piece was first printed in the Vermont Journal, September 13, 2022

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