After Separate Investigations, Police Officer Cleared In Fatal Montpelier Shooting
Prosecutors have declined to file charges against a Montpelier police officer who fatally shot a man in August, saying the use of deadly force was justified because the man aimed what appeared to be a pistol at police.
Both Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan and Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault reviewed the Aug. 9 incident that began when police received an early morning call that Mark Johnson, 62, had allegedly brandished a knife at a resident in the Pioneer Street apartment complex in Montpelier.
According to the prosecutors, Montpelier police officers Chad Bean and Christopher Quesnel responded, and saw Johnson heading toward a bridge over the nearby North Branch of the Winooski River.
The officers said Johnson appeared agitated, held what looked like a pistol, and did not respond to officers' attempts to de-escalate the situation.
According to the prosecutors, Johnson ignored commands to drop the gun. And in a statement released Wednesday, Donovan said that after Johnson "appeared deliberately to take aim at Corporal Bean," then the officer fired at Johnson, striking him twice.
Johnson later died at the hospital. The suspected pistol was found to be a pellet gun.
Both Donovan and Thibault said that Bean was justified in using deadly force because the officers thought they were in imminent danger of being harmed or killed.
"Accordingly, Corporal Bean’s decision to use deadly force to stop the threat was reasonable and justified under the circumstances," Donovan said.
"Corporal Bean's decision to use deadly force to stop the threat was reasonable and justified under the circumstances." — Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan
One key difference emerged in the investigation done by Thibault and the separate review by the Attorney General's Office, which relied on a state police investigation.
While the state's attorney allowed the officers to review their cruiser cam video before they were interviewed under oath, Vermont State Police declined to interview the officers because the Montpelier officers had already seen the video of the events. State police said they want their interviews to capture fresh impressions without being affected by seeing a video of the events.
At a Montpelier news conference Wednesday, Thibault said there is not a firm consensus among law enforcement professionals about the practice.
"There is still a robust debate going on in national level law enforcement policy discussions about whether or not officers should have access to – whether it is cruiser cam or body cam — footage before making a statement," he said.
Thibault specifically spoke to the incident in Montpelier.
“In this particular setting, I'll be candid, I felt that after reviewing the initial video and hearing some of the initial accounts from Cpl. Bean, that the outcome was going to remain the same here, that there was a reasonable and justified use of force," Thibault said.
Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos said he decided to allow the officers to see the video prior to being interviewed based on the advice of the city's lawyers.
"The officers clearly attempted to maintain communication with the decedent, and made reasonable efforts to de-escalate the situation." — Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault
According to Thibault, the video showed Johnson carrying a black object that looked like a handgun. He said officers could not determine that Johnson was carrying a pellet gun and not a more lethal weapon.
"Only a close inspection of the pellet gun would reveal that it is not in fact a standard caliber firearm capable of inflicting death or serious bodily injury on an individual," Thibault said.
"Pointing a weapon at law enforcement by someone who was previously non-compliant and non-responsive to directives to drop the weapon was perceived as a threat of serious bodily injury or, especially, death," he continued.
The prosecutors basically found the officers had no other choice, as Thibault wrote in a summary of his review:
"In reviewing the evidence, I did not identify meaningful opportunities for employment of less than lethal means of incapacitating the decedent. ... The officers clearly attempted to maintain communication with the decedent, and made reasonable efforts to de-escalate the situation."