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No Criminal Charges In Fatal Police Shooting; Questions Remain

Taylor Dobbs
VPR file
Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan announced Thursday that he won't pursue criminal charges against officers who fatally shot a Burlington man in a Dec. 22 drug raid. State Police Maj. Glenn Hall, right, lead the investigation into the shooting

Chittenden County prosecutor TJ Donovan announced this morning that he will not pursue criminal charges against two police officers that shot and killed a Burlington man in a drug raid last month.

“It is clear that the filing of criminal charges against trooper cannon and DEA agent Hoffman are not supported by the evidence,” Donovan said.

The prosecutor’s review didn't answer questions in the community about how police conducted the raid.

The drug raid happened on Elmwood Avenue in Burlington and ended with 13 shots fired on Dec. 22.

Vermont State Police Trooper Matt Cannon and federal agent Tim Hoffman shot and killed 56-year-old Kenneth Stephens after police broke down the door of his first floor apartment with a battering ram.

The raid was run by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Afterward, residents criticized police for their use of military-style gear in a raid in a residential neighborhood.

Earlier this week, the Burlington Police Commission publicly questioned the DEA’s use of assault rifles, which Donovan said today have an effective range of 600 yards.

The choice of weaponry has been especially controversial because, as Donovan put it, “clearly the fact that a bullet entered another residence is concerning. And we’re lucky that nobody was injured.”

But it was close. Vermont State Police Captain JP Sinclair held up a full-page photo of a small couch with a guitar on it, and behind it a window.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Vermont State Police Captain JP Sinclair showed reporters a photo of a couch where an officer's stray bullet landed during a Dec. 22 drug raid in Burlington. When the bullet came through the wall, a resident was sitting on the couch.

“When it came through the window here,” Sinclair explained, “it literally fell on the couch, along with some of the debris from the window, to the resident that was sitting there on the couch”

The “it” Sinclair was referencing — was a bullet.

And Donovan said his office didn’t investigate anything beyond whether police were justified in killing Stephens.

“The priority was always, ‘Was this a justified shooting based on the use of force?’” Donovan said. “The evidence, as presented, did not support any further investigation into any other charge against any other possible victim.”

Donovan said questions about how police armed themselves for the raid and whether they took enough safety precautions was outside the scope of his review.

"The priority was always, 'Was this a justified shooting based on the use of force?' The evidence, as presented, did not support any further investigation into any other charge against any other possible victim." — Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan

Donovan said police, who had already secured an arrest warrant for Stephens, watched him leave and then return to his apartment earlier that day but didn't arrest him.

Why not? The answer to that question was also outside the scope of the investigation.

Vermont State Police Major Glenn Hall's unit conducted the investigation, but he could only guess at why the DEA didn't arrest Stephens in the street.

The DEA didn’t send a representative to Donovan’s news conference Thursday, so the federal agency that planned and executed the raid has yet to publicly answer questions about tactics and safety considerations.

But U.S. Attorney Eric Miller says he’s confident the DEA will hold its own people to account.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
U.S. Attorney Eric Miller says he is confident the Drug Enforcement Administration will hold its own people to account in an internal review of the Dec. 22 raid that left a Burlington man dead.

“I spoke with the DEA’s special agent in charge for all of New England, Mike Ferguson, last night,” Miller said. “And Mike confirmed to me that the DEA, as it does in every officer related shooting, is undertaking a comprehensive after action review that does look into the tactics that went into this raid.”

The DEA's investigation is still ongoing, so for now, Burlington residents will have to keep waiting for answers.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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