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Mental illness likely factored into recent police shootings in Vermont, continuing a long-standing pattern

A photo of a blue police light with blurred lights in the background
Two recent police shootings in Vermont appear to involve individuals who were struggling with mental health issues. For mental health advocates, the way these incidents have played out is nothing new.

David Johnson called 911 around 2:50 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, telling the dispatcher that police needed to respond to an incident at Manhattan Dr. in Burlington. Then, court records say, the 20-year-old hung up, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and walked outside.

Three Burlington Police officers, Officer Brock Marvin, Sgt. Simon Bombard and Cpl. Tyler Kahlig, responded. When Marvin arrived at the scene, court records say he found Johnson on the sidewalk with the knife. Marvin told Johnson multiple times to drop the knife.

“I’m sorry Brock, I’m going to die today,” Johnson said, according to a police affidavit

About four and a half minutes after officers arrived, Bombard asked another officer to get a “bean bag” to try to subdue Johnson. (Police routinely carry bean bag shotguns that are used as less lethal use-of-force options.) At that moment, Johnson ran towards Marvin, holding the knife. Marvin, court records say, fired his taser. At the same time Bombard fired his pistol, hitting Johnson in the leg.

In the hospital later that day, Johnson told state police that he didn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wanted the police to kill him.

For mental health advocates, what happened on Saturday was nothing new.

“I could have written the script,” said Robert Appel, an attorney and former defender general who’s represented victims of alleged police misconduct. “If somebody's in acute mental stress, sending a uniform or in this case, multiple uniformed officers with blue lights flashing and sirens only escalates the situation — and that show of force heightens the stress of the person involved.”

More from Vermont Public: How qualified immunity acts as a barrier for alleged police brutality

Police shootings in Vermont frequently involve people who are struggling with mental health conditions. Two days after the Burlington shooting, a Ludlow police officer shot a 35-year-old man who appeared to have mental health issues.

State police say that Michael Mills, of Cavendish, made more than two dozen 911 calls Monday night in which he made various threats, complaints and suicidal statements.

After leading police on a car chase — where he allegedly rammed a cruiser — Mills hit a tree and then didn’t get out of the car. Officer Jeffrey Warfle then opened up the passenger door, yelled “gun” and the other officer on the scene, Zachary Paul, shot Mills in the head, police say. Police say they found a gun in Mills' car, though it doesn’t appear to have been fired during the encounter.

Paul graduated last month from the Vermont Police Academy, and was field training with Warfle. Both officers are on paid leave while state police investigate the incident.

Mills is currently hospitalized in critical condition.

"How many times do we have to replay this horrific scene before the people speak out and say, 'enough is enough'?"
Robert Appel, attorney

Other police shootings have played out in a similar fashion. In March 2016, Burlington police fatally shot Ralph Grenon while he was in the midst of a psychotic break. And in 2013, a Burlington police officer shot and killed Wayne Brunette, a mentally-ill man who police say advanced at them with a shovel. In 2019, Montpelier police shot and killed Mark Johnson, who appeared to be struggling with mental health issues, after he brandished a pellet gun at them. And in 2006, state troopers fatally shot Joseph Fortunati, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, after police say he pointed a gun at them.

“How many times do we have to replay this horrific scene before the people speak out and say, 'enough is enough'?” Appel said.

Nationally, about a quarter of all police shootings from 2013 to 2019 involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a Washington Post analysis. The newspaper also found shootings of mentally-ill people were 39% more likely to take place in areas where the population is under 1 million.

In Vermont, police officers are required by law to be trained on how to handle people experiencing mental health issues. In recent years, several departments including Vermont State Police hired social workers to handle mental health calls. The Burlington Police Department has also expanded its use of non-sworn, unarmed personnel who can provide social services.

David Johnson, who was shot in Burlington, now faces criminal charges over the incident, and is being held in jail.

State police arrested him on Wednesday after he was discharged from the hospital. He arrived at Chittenden County Superior Court still wearing his hospital gown and using a walker. He faces two charges related to his encounter with police: aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. He was also charged with domestic assault for allegedly punching his mother two days before the shooting.

Johnson pleaded not guilty to all three charges.

His public defender, Stacie Johnson, told the court that Johnson suffers from serious mental health issues, and earlier this year spent time at the Brattleboro Retreat. He also doesn’t have a criminal record, and recently had surgery, Johnson said.

She said her client’s aunt was trying to find a place for him to stay.

“I’m at a loss at this point as to where Mr. Johnson can go, but I’m very concerned about him going to jail,” she said during the arraignment.

“The services that do exist are really being maxed out and unable to provide the quality of care that is necessary to prevent unfortunate events like that which occurred on Saturday."
Lindsey Owen, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont

But for now, he’ll stay in jail — prosecutors asked Johnson to be held without bail, which Judge Alison Arms granted. The court is expected to schedule a bail hearing in the near future.

Sgt. Bombard, the officer who shot Johnson, is on paid administrative leave while state police continue to investigate the incident.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George did not respond to a request for comment.

Lindsey Owen, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, said that the state’s mental health system is in crisis.

“The services that do exist are really being maxed out and unable to provide the quality of care that is necessary to prevent unfortunate events like that which occurred on Saturday,” Owen said in an email.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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