Vermont State Police have denied a request to release any video or audio they may have of a shooting involving five troopers during a standoff early Friday morning that left a Poultney man dead.
Police say they were trying to arrest Michael Battles, 32, on a warrant for aggravated domestic assault at his home when he pointed a silver revolver from a second-story window down at officers.
Five members of the state police tactical team opened fire. An autopsy revealed that Battles suffered a single gunshot wound to his head, according to police. Police said they later learned the revolver in his hand was a BB gun.
VTDigger on Tuesday requested “any and all” video or audio the department has of the incident, including any dashboard camera video from cruisers or audio captured on any recording devices worn by officers. Vermont State Police troopers do not wear body cameras.
Heidi Storm, an administrator with the Vermont State Police, replied Wednesday morning denying the request. “The records you seek are part of an ongoing criminal investigation and cannot be released at this time,” Storm said.
The rejection cited exemptions in the Public Records Act regarding the release of records that deal with the “detection and investigation of crime” that could “reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings” or “would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”
VTDigger has appealed the decision to Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, as allowed by the Public Records Act.
Lia Ernst, an attorney with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday that the ACLU has long called for the “rapid release” of any police footage from officer-involved shootings or other “uses of force” cases.
“We understand there may be some very short period of time during which the witnesses and officers need to be interviewed,” Ernst said, “but after that the public interest in knowing how officers are using force vastly exceeds any risk to the investigation” caused by releasing footage after those initial statements have been taken.
State police are investigating the shooting and will turn over the results to the Rutland County state’s attorney’s office and the Vermont attorney general’s office for review. The prosecutors will determine if the officers were justified in their use of deadly force, a review process customary for all officer-involved shootings.
Maj. Glenn Hall, commander of the state police criminal division, said Wednesday he could not talk about many specifics of the investigation because it is ongoing.
For example, Hall said, he couldn’t say how far the troopers who fired were from Battles or the home.
“This is all part of the investigation,” he said. “Our crime scene search team would have done an entire scene analysis of where things were located, where people were standing, that type of stuff, but that certainly doesn’t get completed in a couple of days. It takes some time. I couldn’t possibly give you distances right now. That is something that would be in the final report.”
Also, Hall said, he could not say at this point how many rounds the troopers fired.
“It may sound simple,” he said, “but we don’t always recover every single round that’s fired. Some of them go into walls.”
In general, Hall said, state police work to get investigations into officer-involved shootings complete and forwarded to prosecutors for review within a couple of weeks.
“We understand there’s an interest here, obviously there’s an interest here for the officers involved and for the public to get answers,” he said. “Once it’s turned over we don’t have any control over how long the prosecutors take to review the case.”
The Poultney shooting investigation right now is the top priority for the state police major crimes unit, he said.
Hall did say he was aware of the criticism over how long it took police to release information about the shooting. The first news release about the shooting was issued around 5 p.m. Friday, about 15 hours after the shooting.
“I don’t think we purposely delay putting information out,” Hall said. “We just want to make sure we’re putting accurate information out, and we want to put enough information where people have an understanding about what happened here.”
He added, “We like to put out as much detail as we can initially because we understand that there’s scrutiny on police shootings. In order to do that we want to make sure we have our facts straight.”
Also, Hall said, the shooting took place at 2 a.m., and no state police detectives are on duty at that time. They have to be called in and get to the scene, he said, adding that some may be coming from quite a distance.
“We’re talking two to three hours before we actually get a team on the ground that’s going to do the investigation,” he said. And in this case, Hall said, police had to call in the crime scene team as well as get a search warrant to process the scene.
“It’s not like it is on TV. These things take a lot of time, and they require resources that are not always close by,” he said.
The five members of the tactical team who fired shots have all been placed on paid administrative leave, consistent with state police policy.