In a change from recent cases of police shootings, a Vermont State Police trooper has been placed on administrative leave, possibly for several months, following his role in shooting a man on busy Interstate 89 this weekend.
Sunday's fatal shooting of a distraught man was the fourth time Trooper Chris Brown has opened fire on a member of the public, command staff said Monday.
Typically, officers may return to work shortly after a shooting event if a mental health professional deems them fit for service. But in this case, given the number of shootings the trooper has been involved in, his boss determined a lengthier period away from work is appropriate.
Vermont State Police said the former wife of 42-year-old Benjamin Gregware reported her ex had possibly been drinking and was upset about fears he'd lose child custody.
Trooper Jay Riggen, who was able to reach Gregware by phone, reported Gregware said he had a 9mm gun with him, as well as newly-purchased ammo. Gregware was planning to drive until he ran out of gas, and "end it," according to Vermont State Police command staff, recounting a roughly 20-minute phone conversation Gregware had with Trooper Riggen.
Gregware was holding a loaded handgun to his own head Sunday, with traffic whizzing by him on I-89 South in Bolton, while advancing on officers who pulled him over, Vermont State Police said.
"They repeatedly told him to drop the weapon," Maj. Glenn Hall said of commands Trooper Chris Brown and town of Richmond Corporal Rick Greenough gave to Gregware.
Command staff said they believe Brown and Greenough shot a total of 12 rounds between them, killing Gregware, who lived in Sheldon. While autopsy results were not immediately available at the time of a Monday morning news conference, Hall said it appeared Gregware had been shot three times, including once in the head.
"As the director, I don't want any fatal shootings to happen," Col. Birmingham said Monday. "But that's not realistic. In this world, they happen. And we do everything we can to mitigate and de-escalate these situations."
Gregware's death was the third fatal officer-involved shooting in Vermont in the past six months. Birmingham acknowledged that Trooper Brown was involved in all three of them, plus a non-fatal shooting in 2015.
"I'm worried about Trooper Brown and the impact this is having on him," Birmingham said in response to a reporter's question, noting that the agency is currently working on analyzing best practices and approaches by other departments, as part of a review of administrative policies pertaining to when officers return to work following a shooting.
Brown's actions were deemed legally justified in two of the shooting cases, with two probes still pending. A clinician did clear him to return to duty, which often happens in just a few days.
However, with new studies now underway into whether Vermont State Police handling of lethal use of force needs to be re-tooled, the commander placed the trooper on indefinite administrative leave Sunday, until the Bolton death is fully examined.
"This decision is not an indication of any wrongdoing by Trooper Brown," Birmingham pointed out.
Birmingham added that Brown will not return to full duty until the full legal review of Gregware's shooting has been completed.
Ways to consider new mental health protocol for troopers, including better understanding of possible links of officer-involved shootings to PTSD, will be addressed in a report Birmingham said he expects to receive next month.
Maj. Hall said numbers show police shootings in Vermont since 2010 have already exceeded the prior decade, with two years still left in that 10-year comparison.
Hall said he believed in Vermont from 2000-2010, there were 22 police-involved shootings, and said he believes the number has been 25 since 2010.
"Certainly, there is great cause for concern," Birmingham said of an apparent rise in police-involved shootings in Vermont.
When asked if there is a common thread between the cases, Hall said many of the shootings have involved mental health crises and suicidal subjects, which he said are some of the most challenging cases for cops.
As for the backup officer from Sunday's shooting in Bolton, he's taking at least six days off, according to Richmond Police Chief Al Buck.
"It's the first-ever shooting that the Richmond Police Department has been involved in in its 50-year existence," Buck noted.
Birmingham said there is video of the Bolton incident, which will play a critical role in the ongoing investigation.
Once complete, that investigation will be independently reviewed by both Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George and Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan to determine if the officers' actions were appropriate under the law.