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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Prosecutors: Deputy’s Fatal Shooting of Winooski Man Was Justified

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2016 at 1:26 PM

click to enlarge Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan speaks as police listen. - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan speaks as police listen.
Updated at 5:58 p.m.

A sheriff's deputy who fatally shot a Winooski man after a brief foot chase last month will not face criminal charges, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan announced Thursday.

Franklin County Deputy Nicholas Palmier, 31, was legally justified in shooting Jesse Beshaw because Beshaw refused to show his hands and approached Palmier in an “aggressive manner,” Donovan said during a press conference.

A police investigation found that Beshaw, 29, told the deputy words “to the effect of, ‘I’ll pull a gun out,’” according to Donovan.

“I’ll shoot you! I will shoot you!” Palmier warned Beshaw.

Beshaw responded, “Let’s get it,” and later said, “Do it, do it,” as he approached Palmier with his right hand behind his back.

“This is an intense moment and I can’t speak as to what Mr. Beshaw was thinking at that time,” Donovan said. “When you say you have a gun and you indicate you have a gun and you advance on an officer who has shouted commands to stop … it raises real questions as to what he’s thinking at that moment.”

Palmier fired eight shots in two seconds, hitting Beshaw seven times in the head and chest. It happened behind the O’Brien Community Center off Malletts Bay Avenue in Winooski.

“Given Mr. Beshaw’s actions and the information known to Deputy Palmier, a reasonable person in Deputy Palmier’s position would have believed that he was in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury,” Donovan said in a prepared statement. “Therefore, firing his gun at Mr. Beshaw is justified as being a lawful defense of himself.”

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, also tasked with reviewing the shooting, concurred with Donovan’s opinion.

Beshaw, who was wanted for burglary, briefly hid inside a home on Union Street after Winooski officers arrived to take him into custody.

Palmier, a Winooski resident, happened by the scene while driving home from a shift in Fairfax. He was in uniform and armed with a 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistol, authorities said.

Palmier volunteered to help. Winooski officer Brenda Davis told him that Beshaw, whom Palmier had never met, had “always been armed with a gun.” 

“OK, he carries?” Palmier asked Winooski police officer James Charkalis.

“Ya, he’s definitely carrying, so ...” Charkalis answered.

“He relied on the information,” Donovan said during the press conference. “That was a reasonable thing to do by Nick Palmier. Nick Palmier reacted as I think a reasonable person would have in those circumstances, knowing what he knew.”

When Beshaw bolted from the home, Palmier gave chase and caught up with Beshaw less than a quarter of a mile away. After Palmier and Beshaw stopped running, the confrontation lasted just 13 seconds.

Responding to public pressure along with formal legal requests from Seven Days and other media outlets, authorities on Thursday released Palmier’s body camera footage of the shooting. Donovan urged the media to “exercise restraint,” in releasing images to the public.

Seven Days is posting a portion of the 15-minute video, including the exchange between Palmier and Beshaw, but not the graphic footage of the shots and the aftermath.

After the shooting, the video captured Palmier urging Winooski police officers to get a medical kit from his cruiser so that they could better aid Beshaw. At one point, he criticized officers for not moving quickly enough.

Palmier, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, began to take charge of efforts to aid Beshaw, telling other officers what to do and bandaging Beshaw’s wounds.

The video ends with an ambulance crew arriving about 11 minutes after the shots were fired.

The site of the shooting became a memorial to Beshaw, with signs commemorating his life and criticizing the police. “What about social injustice?” one sign said. “Fuck the police. Murderers. Eye for an Eye,” read another.

Beshaw was the third person killed by local law enforcement in the past 10 months. In May, Burlington police shot a 76-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia after he approached heavily armed officers with a large knife during a standoff inside his College Street home. And in December, officers executing a no-knock search warrant shot a suspected heroin dealer inside his home in Burlington’s Old North End after he brandished a rifle.

While Donovan deemed all three shootings to be lawful, he said the incidents raise questions about whether less aggressive police tactics could have helped calm situations before officers opened fire.

“The tactical issues in place are something we should review and work on,” Donovan said.

Vermont State Police Major Glenn Hall, who oversaw the investigation of the Winooski shooting, said officers have little choice but to pursue people who are subject of arrest warrants.

“We look at that as a public safety issue. That person is still out there with an active arrest warrant,” Hall said. “We expect [officers] to do their job, and part of their job is to apprehend people who are wanted for felonies.”

Donovan said he met with members of Beshaw’s family earlier Thursday to explain his decision and to review the video footage with them. They were upset with his decision not to charge Palmier, Donovan said.

Beshaw’s mother died in 2011 and his father died in February, events that a friend told Seven Days precipitated Beshaw’s struggle with drugs and other problems. His brother, Michael Lewis, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2009 after leading police on a car chase that ended in a crash that killed two of his passengers and injured four others — including Beshaw — in South Burlington.

As the Burlington Free Press and previously reported, Palmier was fired from jobs with the Winooski and St. Albans police departments.

Palmier worked for the Winooski police from November 2009 to November 2010, Winooski Police Chief Rick Hebert said. Hebert said that his predecessor, Steve McQueen, decided to let Palmier go five days before his probationary period with the department expired. Hebert declined to provide additional details.

Palmier worked in St. Albans from May 2011 to March 2012 and was fired for omitting information from a police report, the Free Press and reported. He appealed his termination and was later allowed to resign.

Palmier has been placed on paid leave from his current job, Franklin County Sheriff Robert Norris said, and will return when Norris and a mental health counselor deem him ready.

The shooting has sparked an outcry about police tactics and transparency. A protest on Winooski’s traffic circle last month drew 50 people who urged police to act less aggressively and criticized them for delaying release of the camera footage.

A high-profile police shooting in Tulsa, Okla., occurred the same day as Beshaw’s shooting. Within 72 hours, authorities in Oklahoma released footage showing an officer killing an unarmed black man.

“It’s no secret that we need to start having tough conversations about policing in America,” Hebert said.

Hall said Vermont State Police investigators interviewed 60 people as part of the investigation.

Palmier’s attorney, Craig Nolan, said in an interview that his client was pleased with the outcome of the investigation and hopes to return to work soon.

“These events are always traumatic for those involved,” Nolan said. “He is doing well under the circumstances.”

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Mark Davis

Mark Davis

Mark Davis is a Seven Days staff writer.

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