Jim Austin's Vermonter at Large
Jim Austin
Jim Austin
is a freelance writer from Putney, Vermont.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 05.06.02


The shooting debate continues

I watched Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell on Vermont TV recently. The half-hour program addressed two issues. Issue one was the reticence of the Catholic Church in Vermont to turn over all the names of those priests accused of molesting children. Issue two was the shooting of Brattleboro resident Robert Woodward.

In the first instance, Sorrell seemed right on the money. The church, he explained, was not giving up the names of those priests who allegedly attacked children before 1982 because the statute of limitations would prevent their prosecution.

Sorrell was insisting on the names for a very good reason. He wanted to know where these priests are now. Are they working with children? He thinks the state has a right to know. I agree.

Sorrell was on solid ground with his views on priestly misconduct. He even mentioned getting encouragement from both parties in the House of Representatives on this issue. When it came to explaining the shooting of Robert Woodward, he became defensive and a bit strident. He was on thin ice and he knew it.

His interpretation of the events reported to him regarding the incident could not have served the police officers better.

I don't recall a single eye witness from the scene of Woodward's death who said publicly that Woodward had charged the police with his knife.

Not one.

It seemed very fortuitous for the officers that after the investigation started, hitherto silent witnesses reported that Woodward had "lowered the knife and charged the officers."

Sorrell admitted that there was much conflicting testimony among those present as to what happened. Some said he charged, some said he stood his ground Sorrell stated.

Sorrell bought the story of the officers and the witnesses who said he charged. He ended by saying that the police were justified in their actions. He did not allow that there was any way around this situation save firing shots at Woodward.

This is where he and I disagree.

In his piece written in the Reformer a few weeks ago, Sorrell said that a stun gun would not have been inappropriate in this situation. That is debatable but what is not debatable is the effectiveness of a taser that shoots paralyzing electrodes into an assailant at a distance of twenty feet.

The entire LAPD is equipped with them. Proper use of a $200 taser would definitely have saved Robert Woodward's life. So would a $40 billy club.

Makes you wonder what else Sorrell didn't know.

There were three officers on the scene and one man with a knife. Why weren't the remaining parishioners ordered to immediately evacuate the church as many others had done?

No one ever suggested that Woodward was holding people hostage.

As Sorrell said on the show, "If the parishioners hadn't been there, we might still be negotiating with Woodward?"

Near the end of the show the interviewer asked Sorrell if, despite being within the guidelines permitted for using deadly force, the officers might have tried some other, less final solution.

Sorrell's answer was no. They had no choice.

Three armed men with body armor (presumably) and pepper spray against a 3 inch knife blade. These officers fired seven shots in a room with eighteen bystanders looking on and claimed to be protecting them.

Sorrell admitted that only two of the shots hit where they were aiming. How safe were those bystanders?

The issue of denying Woodward medical attention while he lay cuffed on the church floor was never addressed on the program.

This is a different issue of course, but I think it may go to the attitude of the officers regarding the welfare of Mr. Woodward. If they allowed him to bleed after he was rendered harmless, how much concern did they have for his life when they entered the building?

The official report states that Woodward received medical attention on the scene before the EMT's arrived. News reports directly after the incident said specifically that he was denied any assistance, even though help was offered by civilians.

Why the discrepancy? Much will be made of this when the civil suit is brought against the town and the officers.

Sorrell should have allowed the possibility of another course of action for these officers. This would not have necessitated a reversal of his findings. He acted not as a judge but as lawyer for the officers.

I don't think anyone really wants to vilify these officers. I know they are sorry about what happened and wish there had been a different outcome. Many of us are very concerned about the defensive posture of the police and the Attorney General. They allow for no possibility of a different outcome.

We are not stupid. Three trained, well-armed policemen against a small albeit deranged man with a pocket knife. Actions taken by police should make us feel safe. This action and the stonewalling that followed makes me feel very uneasy.

There have been twelve fatal police shootings in Vermont over the past 20 years, according to Sorrell. Perhaps this shouldn't have been one of them.