Last week, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution urging city police to improve their handling of mentally ill subjects, prompted by the killing of Wayne Brunette, a 49-year-old who police say threatened officers with a shovel in November. “Policies have to be changed,” his widow, Barbara Brunette, told the council. “Training needs to be increased for police officers on how to handle mental-health issues.”
Law-enforcement documents since obtained by Seven Days provide new details about the fatal encounter between Brunette and officers Brent Navari and Ethan Thibault at his home in Burlington’s New North End — a shooting that, while ruled lawful, has led to a renewed focus on improving encounters between police and unstable citizens.
Among the insights:
• Two days before the November 6 shooting, Navari and Thibault participated in a Burlington Police Department-designed training course on proper police interaction with people who are mentally ill. Like all Queen City officers, they’d also been through the state’s training program.
• A dispatcher alerted the officers that they would be dealing with a “mental-health issue” before they encountered Brunette. Despite that information, and the fact that the man had had previous run-ins with police, events unfolded so quickly that officers did not know Brunette’s name or law-enforcement history before Thibault opened fire.
• Brunette was inside the house when officers arrived, and the officers spoke with his parents before they encountered him. It was Navari who summoned Brunette to come outside.
Did police act too aggressively? The same question came up in 2006, when Vermont police killed a schizophrenic man who had a gun; and again in June 2012, when they Tased an unarmed man who suffered from a seizure disorder — and he died as a result.
“We would like to see the response of police officers to be more circumspect than it is sometimes,” said Ed Paquin, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont. “They’re not social workers,” he acknowledged, but nor have they “implemented … what people generally agree is a logical response. You still have police reacting fast, making snap judgments — not a whole lot is different than a few years ago.”
Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling said his department is determined to improve its response to mental-health emergencies. Last week, it launched a pilot project that incorporates mental-health professionals into its first-response strategy. Provided there’s no safety risk, a trained HowardCenter worker will ride along with police on 911 calls. The mental-health workers might occasionally go out on their own.
The chief said he was unsure if the mental-health worker would have responded to the Brunette call: Brunette’s family had indicated that he was “out of control,” the chief noted, but there were no reports that anyone had been physically harmed.
Schirling defends Navari and Thibault, saying they acted appropriately. “It was the best available response. There’s no way to know how something is going to unfold when you arrive, and they didn’t do anything to exacerbate the situation,” Schirling said. “They didn’t even have a chance to talk to the person.”
Brunette’s family members declined to comment for this article. But a public records request Seven Days filed with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office turned up a file of police reports, investigation findings and transcripts of interviews with Burlington Police officers Navari and Thibault that provides a more complete picture of what happened that day.
Around 4:19 p.m. on November 6, Navari and Thibault were parked in their cruisers near the Ethan Allen Homestead, talking, when they received a call from the dispatcher. Thibault had been on the force for 13 years, Navari for 10.
“Respond to 85 Randy Lane for a mental-health issue,” the dispatcher told the officers. “The caller lives downstairs, owns property, advises [that] her son, who lives in the upstairs apartment, has been threatening, out of control, destroying property. He is now in the apartment upstairs. She’s downstairs, was advised to stay inside with the door locked.”
Brunette had begun chopping down a tree in the front yard of the home he shared with his parents and his wife, and had been yelling at his family. Burlington police dispatch records show the 911 call was entered as a “mental-health issue.”
The officers both arrived at the home about four minutes later.
Neither officer had any history with Wayne Brunette or his family. They approached the front door of the home, where Ruthine and Lawrence Brunette were waiting just outside the door. The couple said their son had “mental-health issues” and had spent time at the state hospital in Waterbury, Thibault later told Vermont State Police investigators.
Based on that investigation, Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan eventually cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, and a parallel inquiry by the Burlington Police Department found that they had followed department policies. The state investigation provides this narrative:
Lawrence Brunette told Thibault that his son was “crazy,” refusing to take his prescribed medications or get other help. While Thibault talked to the parents, Navari stood to the left, in the driveway, and saw a bearded man through the open bay door standing in the nearby garage.
The man dropped something on the floor and disappeared from view, Navari told investigators. Moments later, Navari saw the man standing on a deck over the garage. The man was holding something, Navari said, and staring at him.
“Sir, can you come on down and talk to me?” Navari recalled asking the man, who they would later learn was Brunette.
“No,” Brunette said.
Suddenly, Brunette emerged from the garage into the driveway, Navari recalled, holding a long-handled spade.
“Sir, can you do me a favor and put down the shovel so we can talk?” Navari asked.
According to Navari, Brunette said, “You are going to have to shoot me.”
Then he charged at Navari, who backpedaled toward the street.
“He never said anything else,” Navari told investigators. “Hairs stood up and I was fucking scared. He was staring through me ... I honestly, I, first time I’ve been this scared in my life.”
Navari drew his Glock pistol when, suddenly, Brunette’s focus shifted to Thibault, who had also drawn his gun and began yelling, “Drop the shovel!”
Within a “few seconds,” Thibault, who stood his ground as Brunette approached, fired, twice hitting Brunette in the torso. But Brunette kept advancing.
“Brunette was still advancing towards me, was very close,” Thibault later told investigators. “Eye contact. No real emotion except for, like, anger on his face. I shot at least one more time, I think two more times, before his momentum stopped and he went to the ground.”
Thibault approached and saw that Brunette had dropped the shovel.
Since they didn’t know if he had any other weapons, the officers said they did not administer first aid. Brunette, with four bullet holes in his body, tried to sit up. Thibault advised him to stay down, that help was on the way.
“Don’t touch the shovel,” he added.
It wasn’t until then that Thibault asked Lawrence Brunette his son’s name. The father had already witnessed the shooting.
“Thought his father said ‘Wade’ at first, so I asked him again,” Thibault later recalled. “He said ‘Wayne.’ I said, ‘OK ... we have an ambulance coming. Be all right.’ And started speaking to Brunette by his first name, Wayne, telling him again to keep breathing, to relax.”
A half hour later, Brunette was pronounced dead at Fletcher Allen Hospital. The dispatch log indicates the officers had been on the scene for two minutes before Brunette fell to the ground with his fatal wounds.
Law-enforcement officials and mental-health advocates say Brunette’s shooting calls for enhanced training of police officers who may encounter unstable individuals. But Navari and Thibault hail from a force that may have received more instruction than any other in the state.
In 2004, lawmakers passed Act 80, which requires recruits at the Vermont Police Academy to undergo specialized training to deal with mentally ill subjects. Officers who had already graduated from the academy were not required to take the course. But the Burlington Police Department — which, because of the proximity to HowardCenter and other service providers, deals with a large number of mentally ill subjects — voluntarily sent all of its officers through the program.
By the end of 2013, 64 percent of all full-time officers in Vermont had gone through the training, according to reports filed with the legislature. Like Burlington, other police departments sent some of its veterans voluntarily.
Additionally, the Burlington Police Department periodically hosts its own training sessions, to brush up on best practices. Navari told investigators that such a session happened two days before Brunette’s death. He said, “We did patrol procedures and training in regards to — in fact, it was stuff like going to a suicidal person, or a mental-health situation, person with a gun, person with a bat, person with a knife.”
In an interview, Schirling said the training session shortly before the shooting had focused on “integrated training on patrol tactics and how to interact with people with diminished mental capacity or a mental-health issue.” Part of the session, Schirling said, focused on how the mere presence of uniformed police officers can cause anxiety in mentally ill subjects.
“The number one thing is, we know from experience that the mere presence of a police officer can exacerbate someone’s underlying condition. It can be a trigger for people,” Schirling said. “The idea is, you can prevent people from escalating to the point where you’re now dealing with violent behavior, because once people act in a violent manner, your options are limited.”
In this case, though, Schirling said there was little his officers could have done to generate a different outcome. Brunette gave them no time to talk, he said, or employ other techniques to calm him down.
“Your question is emblematic of how fast things unfolded, that they never even got to the point where they had his name,” Schirling said. “We don’t have control over the speed in this particular instance.”
State Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), an expert on mental illness, said training only helps so much. Ultimately, she said, the ability to de-escalate comes down to the personalities and skills of the responding officers. “We’re still a long way, in terms of improving, and a lot is always about the personality,” Donahue said. “Some people are just better about that sort of thing. But training helps more people get skilled.”
Navari and Thibault have returned to active duty. But questions about the officers’ handling of Brunette persist.
“By saying it was legally justified, I’m not saying it was a good outcome,” Donovan said in an interview. “The outcome we’re looking for is nonviolent and de-escalating when a mental-health crisis has occurred. We want to make sure citizens are comfortable calling police. There’s got to be a better way, and I’m committed to finding it and I know Chief Schirling is, too.”
Others were more critical.
“Certainly there should not be the use of deadly force within minutes of law enforcement’s arrival on scene,” says Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert. “That’s just a very sad commentary on an interaction gone terribly bad.”
Donahue also questioned the officers’ conduct, suggesting that, while it was ruled lawful, it was well short of ideal.
“Isn’t there some level of review where you can say, ‘This is what should have happened but didn’t, and you get a bad check mark, because you may not be guilty of the shooting in the direct sense, but you didn’t handle it well, and there was a life lost that didn’t have to be’?” Donahue said. “It seems like that’s a big missing component. We’re either going to prosecute you for homicide or we’re going to say everything is fine. I don’t think that builds confidence for people, and it doesn’t improve police response.”
The officers’ attorney, Brooks McArthur, said that while his clients regretted the outcome, they handled the situation as they had been trained to.
“It was a situation that happened very quickly,” McArthur said. “It’s a tragedy and no one wanted that to happen, and certainly the officers feel terribly for Mr. Brunette and his family. But when these kind of situations occur they have to fall back on their training, and that’s what they did.”