Nine Vermont police officers are now free from criminal prosecution, following the shooting death of a robbery suspect by law enforcement outside Montpelier High School in mid-January.
Nate Giffin, 32, died after a hail of police gunfire January 16. His death was the subject of two just-completed external probes of law enforcement actions that day, conducted by Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan and Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault.
“This shooting was justified,” Donovan announced Tuesday morning.
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The announcement cleared Michael Philbrick of the Montpelier Police Department and Vermont State Police members Lyle Decker, Cory Lozier, Eugene Duplissis, Christopher Brown, Charlie Winn, David White, Isaac Merriam, and Brandon Degree.
Giffin was suspected of robbing a credit union across from Montpelier High School, then fleeing behind the school while students were inside learning.
With the kids and staff in lockdown, police surrounded Giffin, first trying to talk him down.
Newly-released video from a police dash camera shows Giffin pointing a B.B. gun at officers, who thought at the time from its realistic design that it was an actual pistol. Troopers also heard shouted threats and saw Giffin move toward them, Donovan noted.
Donovan and Thibault determined it was a reasonable response to shoot Giffin, because police believed he could have killed or badly injured them.
Giffin was struck by seven bullets from responding officers, according to the report.
“The troopers and the officers were responding to a dynamic situation, responding to threats as this unfolded,” Donovan told reporters.
“This has been a very traumatic experience for many in Montpelier and certainly there are a lot of things that can be done in the future to help both the community heal and to take lessons away from this particular incident,” Thibault added.
Vermont State Police also announced Tuesday that new tools and training are on their way, which may change the way troopers respond to tense situations like the one outside Montpelier High School in January.
“We’re always learning from every situation we’re involved in,” said Col. Matt Birmingham, the commander of the Vermont State Police.
Birmingham announced a new emphasis on less-than-lethal approaches in certain cases, like plastic bullets, beanbags, or long-range pepper spray. The force also has retained a consultant to advise them on policies that could help to resolve dangerous situations more safely.
“Although we’re going to work on expanding our non-lethal capabilities, non-lethal options are not always appropriate in every situation,” Birmingham said.
Vermont State Police will also add new cameras to the uniforms of the tactical team and atop the team’s armored vehicle, the force said.
Thibault and Donovan applauded the moves aimed at improving the tactical team for any future crises.
Thibault also said Tuesday that an arrest warrant has just been issued for a man accused of helping Nate Giffin in the credit union robbery before the fatal shooting.
The suspect is Joshua Preston, who Thibault said has ties to Johnson. Preston has been on escape status from the Vermont Corrections Department since the day after the robbery, according to Thibault.
At the press conference announcing the decision to not charge the officers criminally, Thibault, Donovan, and Birmingham expressed their condolences to the family of Nate Giffin. Those sentiments were echoed by Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos and by Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson.
“We wish that this were not the way his life ended,” Mayor Watson said of Giffin, adding that there was more to him than simply the high-profile way in which he died.
The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus reported in January that at a vigil remembering the life of Giffin, several community members recalled him as a kind person who fell into the tragic throes of opioid addiction.