Vermont State Police are now investigating an incident Monday night where Burlington police shot and killed a elderly man who they say lunged at officers with knives.
Police say 76-year-old Ralph Grenon was in his apartment downtown, threatening to kill himself and his neighbors.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told VPR his officers tried to use their training and mental health resources to end the standoff peacefully - to no avail.
You were at the scene last night — you were even in Grenon's apartment at one point. Briefly, give us your account of what happened.
"Over the course of a little more than five hours, we attempted to get Mr. Grenon out of the apartment. As has been widely reported by now, numerous efforts from negotiations to trying to make contact with him using pepper balls, which is an irritant, to using tasers, shields. None of that worked, in fact, he was by all accounts impervious to the taser. He at one point lunged at one of our officers with a knife, in very close quarters. His apartment was tiny. The officer opened fire."
Were any Burlington Police officers hurt during this exchange?
"It seems like the only people who were affected by the irritant were the Burlington police, but luckily they all escaped serious injury, I'm happy to say."
You've said that the BPD had gotten calls about Grenon before — that you knew he was an elderly man, you knew he was 'emotionally ill,' as you put it last night. Given that you perceived there to be a mental health issue with this man, tell me how you handled this situation differently than they might have otherwise.
"We actually started off going to the building at the beginning of the shift when a street outreach worker said 'Mr. Grenon's acting up again, I need to offer him services. I'm scared to go there by myself, I feel like I'm in danger. Can the police come with me?' So an officer agreed to escort the street outreach worker, who is a mental health professional.
"On the way over, just by pure coincidence, a 911 call to our dispatch came over saying that there's a man threatening to kill people at the same location. And it was [Grenon]. So instead of going up with the mental health worker, to just do a services call, additional uniformed officers responded.
"And that's how this call came about. To answer your question — knowing it's a mental health call — the first thing we try to do is number one bring street outreach or try to have them resolve it. But they had said by that point, 'we don't even feel like we can engage with them safely.'
"We also briefly interviewed two residents, and they said 'yeah we're very scared of him. He's threatened to kill us. Please do something about this.' So we contained him, slowed the situation down, brought ballistically and polycarbonate shields, brought negotiators, brought a camera. Just trying to make contact with him at that point and start negotiations."
As you said, all these nonlethal things you tried last night didn't work. This guy was still being threatening. He eventually apparently tried to stab one of these cops. Still, we have heard from people today saying 'look these were cops with riot shields and guns. Confronting an old guy with a couple of kitchen knives.' Was deadly force really justified here?
"One of the things that you'll see at some appropriate point in the investigation is that we have body camera footage of all the key points in the event. I think that the public will be able to, at least, see through the lens of the camera the dangers that the officers faced. They will be able to see the types of evidence that that were recovered, the close quarters at which this happened, the fact that this wasn't rushed by any means.
"We use tactics and strategies that were employed in Burlington for the first time based on the Police Executive Research Forum January conference on how to better handle emotionally disturbed people armed with knives. I mean, we learn these tactics in January and put them into effect immediately and deployed them last night. They all aimed toward a resolution that doesn't involve using this type of force. But you can't guarantee a perfect outcome in policing, especially when you're dealing with a person who's deeply ill."
Do you feel like there's anything else that you or police could have done last night to try to have this end peacefully?
"Well, the only thing that we wonder about is just waiting. We waited five hours, could we have waited another five hours? That's just the thought that we all had because none of us was happy with this outcome. This was the loss of a human life.
"Waiting in itself isn't a plan, waiting is part of a plan. Normally when you have a rapport with somebody, you wait. When you can bring additional resources to the scene, you wait. When the person asks for something like a relative or friend or a trusted person that you can supply to them, you wait. When it's an environment where they're holed up in not interfering with the workings of an entire apartment building or a city, you wait.
"From the moment he shut the door until the moment we eventually make contact with him, he didn't say a single word to us. He wouldn't engage. All he did was brandished knives whenever we got a look at him. This was an illness that had been escalating for weeks. I don't think that waiting a few hours would have changed him into the type of person who would suddenly start talking to us and easily surrender. Given that, we'd already brought all the resources we had to the scene. I mean everything we had in our inventory."
You mentioned body cameras. Last year Burlington police shot a man, but the cops on the scene weren't rolling with their body cameras. You said that they were rolling last night. Will that video and audio be available to the public at some point?
"Right now it's in the hands of the Vermont State Police, and I truly hope it will. Given my druthers I intend to release it, to be number one transparent and to number two just let the public know what officers did.
"Another thing that precipitated that Colchester shooting you referenced is the individual just exited his trailer of his own volition. We didn't control that door. We learned all these lessons. Our cameras were all on. We actually tied his door off last night so that he couldn't exit his apartment until we were ready to engage with them. When experience is hard won we do learn from it."
What's next with this investigation?
"Right now the Vermont State Police is conducting an independent investigation. They have no formal affiliation with us, so they do report in terms of this investigation to the state's attorney. T.J. Donovan. They'll be reviewing this and deciding whether or not to proceed with charges, whether the shooting was appropriate.
"Believe me, this is a very important type of review. Any time lethal force is used by the police or anyone else, we need to be assured completely by independent bodies that it was justified. These are citizens we're talking about. An emotionally ill person presents a very tragic case."