Courts & Corrections

AG backs decision to withhold audio, video of Poultney shooting

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Vermont’s top prosecutor, who will review the investigation into a shooting last week involving five troopers that left a Poultney man dead, said he supports a Vermont State Police decision not to release any video or audio they may have of the incident, at least while the probe is continuing.

“I understand the public’s rights to know, I understand the need for transparency when you have an officer-involved shooting,” Attorney General TJ Donovan said, “but I also understand protecting the integrity of the investigation, which means you don’t release it.”

He added, “This is evidence, this is a criminal investigation, and you don’t release evidence during the pendency of an investigation. We have to let state police do their job, we have to let investigators do their job.”

Donovan this week declined to discuss specific aspects of the Poultney case.

“I don’t want to offer an opinion on the specific facts,” he said. “ We haven’t received the investigation yet.”

police shooting
Police say this is one of the two BB guns they recovered from Michael Battles, who was killed by an officer early Friday in Poultney. Vermont State Police photo

Police said a standoff began last Thursday afternoon and stretched into early Friday morning as they were trying to arrest Michael Battles, 32, on a warrant for aggravated domestic assault. Despite repeated attempts to convince Battles to leave his home on Finel Hollow Road in Poultney, he refused, according to police.

Around 2 a.m. he pointed a silver revolver from a second-story window of his home down at officers and five members of the state police tactical team opened fire, police said. An autopsy the next day, police said, revealed that Battles suffered a single gunshot wound to his head, according to police. Later, police said, they learned the revolver in his hand was a BB gun.

Donovan said this week that ultimately any video or audio of the shooting would be released once the investigation is complete and is reviewed by prosecutors to determine if the use of deadly force was justified.

‘It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he said of the release of any video or audio.

shooting
This house in Poultney is where Michael Battles, 32, was shot and killed in a standoff with police. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

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. Both prosecutors will determine if the officers were justified in their use of deadly force, a review process customary for all officer-involved shootings.

VTDigger this week requested “any and all” video or audio state police have 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.

That request has been denied, with state police citing an exemption to the Public Records Act regarding the release of records that deal with the “detection and investigation of crime.”

VTDigger has appealed that decision to Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Vermont chapter has also said they support the “rapid release” of any police footage from officer-involved shootings or other “uses of force” cases, saying the public interest in knowing how officers are using force exceeds any risk to the investigation.

Donovan said the issue of when to release any audio or video captured by law enforcement in uses of forces cases is a matter that has come up several times in the past during his tenure as Chittenden County state’s attorney.

He said the Poultney case will be the first review of an officer-involved shooting leading to a fatality that he has had since becoming attorney general earlier this year.

Once the investigation is complete and his office finishes its review Donovan said his practice as Chittenden County state’s attorney had been to be “as transparent as I can” and he intends to the same as attorney general.

Matt Valerio
Defender General Matt Valerio. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

“That generally meant answering every question and really disclosing as much information as we can at the relevant time about what happened, why things happened and what the decision, and what the legal conclusion is,” he said.

The attorney general added that there should a larger “discussion” about the issue regarding the release of audio and video from law enforcement because it repeatedly comes up, especially in cases of officer-involved shooting.

“I’m not sure if there is any easy answer,” he said. “I think that we need to, whether it’s coming … from the attorney general’s office and law enforcement, we need some guidance here from the Legislature on this question because this questions come up every time.”

Matthew Valerio, the state’s defender general, said the issue is “tough one for me” because he supports transparency, but in these cases there’s a conflict of rights, between the public’s right to know and the need to protect a person’s ability to have a fair and impartial trial.

He said he doesn’t favor the release of audio or video by law enforcement before it is introduced in court as evidence.

“I don’t like to see somebody’s criminal case threatened by publicity or by inferences that can be drawn by evidence out of context.” he said. “If only pieces of the evidence get released in advance, people are tried in the press and not the court, where they should be tried.”

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Alan J. Keays

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