Courts & Corrections

Officer sliced while making arrest fuels Burlington public safety debate

BURLINGTON — A weekend incident in which a police officer was cut on the hand while arresting a man armed with a knife has renewed debate over downtown safety and how the justice system should handle people in crisis.

Police responded at 4:40 a.m. Saturday to multiple reports of a man yelling and waving a knife at the intersection of Church and Main streets. Officers immediately recognized the man as Jason Breault, 41, who is homeless and has had extensive interactions with police, according to a news release.

Police talked Breault into discarding what they believed to be a large knife. Officers later discovered it was a hand weeding tool with sharp points capable of causing “serious bodily injury,” according to court documents.

Jason Breault, 41, is charged with aggravated assault on a police officer and other crimes after an altercation with police in downtown Burlington. Photo courtesy of the Burlington Police Department.

Breault then ran away from officers into City Hall Park. Police said during a struggle, they discovered a knife in his waistband, which they said he was attempting to remove while officers tried to place him in handcuffs.

One officer sustained what police described as a minor cut on the hand during the altercation. The officer did not require treatment at a hospital, police said.

Breault has had nearly 20 arrests since December 2016, according to police, and when he was arrested again on Saturday, he had 19 pending court charges for crimes including aggravated disorderly conduct and simple assault, records show.

Eight of the charges pending against Breault are for violating the conditions of his release. Among the conditions on his release when he was arrested Saturday was that he not possess weapons, a condition that police said stems from his “history of menacing citizens with either replica firearms or knives.”

Judge Nancy Waples had ordered Breault to undergo a psychiatric evaluation on Aug. 31 to determine if Breault was sane and competent to stand trial for the many charges he faces. That evaluation did not occur, but another is scheduled for Oct. 23.

Breault’s latest arrest follows several violent incidents involving homeless people downtown, which have sparked tense conversations in Burlington about how to ensure public safety and decency. Those conversations have been further complicated by the fact that many homeless people who get into trouble downtown have substance abuse or mental health problems that are not being adequately addressed.

Breault is facing new charges after his arrest Saturday, and during his arraignment Monday, he pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct, violating his conditions of release and resisting arrest.

This time, Breault was ordered held without bail and is currently being housed at the Northwestern Regional Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

The incident drew a rare public statement from the Burlington Police Officers’ Association, the union representing city police, which appeared to lay blame for the situation at the feet of the judiciary and advocates for further criminal justice reforms.

“This incident is just the most recent example of the judiciary system in Chittenden County failing to rein in a violent criminal who should not have been on the streets to begin with,” said BPOA President David Clements.

Mayor Miro Weinberger also issued a statement Monday that appeared critical of the judiciary. “It is unacceptable that someone who has been arrested 20 times in 10 months, sometimes for violent crimes, and has repeatedly violated his conditions of release, was in a position to threaten the public and harm a police officer this past Saturday,” Weinberger said.

The mayor said he welcomed the judge’s decision to hold Breault without bail after these latest charges, and said the city is committed to working toward “a system where there are appropriate consequences for violent crimes.”

Clements went further, saying the justice system is “putting sympathy for violent criminals and correctional cost-cutting” ahead of police and public safety.

Officers confront the same people committing similar crimes “on a near constant basis,” Clements said, and the resulting criminal charges are “often met with excuses and justifications” made from “the safety of an office or courtroom,” and it’s police who are left to deal with their consequences, he said.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, is among those advocating for Vermont’s criminal justice system to rely less on incarceration.

He praised the officers involved in Saturday’s incident for applying the de-escalation tactics Burlington police have implemented since officers killed a mentally ill elderly man armed with a knife in 2015.

“This is what we want officers to be doing: focusing on the preservation of life whenever possible,” Diaz said.

However, Diaz said it was “troubling” that the police association appeared to be “questioning the impartiality of the justice system” when Saturday’s incident clearly demonstrates the need for continued officer training, more crisis outreach workers and possibly temporary facilities to house people during a psychotic break, Diaz said.

“Those are real solutions that could have a measurable benefit as opposed to incarceration,” Diaz said.

Locking people up won’t help resolve the addiction or mental health issues that drive criminal behavior, and it can actually make things worse by disrupting someone’s connection to social services and state welfare programs, he said.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said he agrees with Diaz and other advocates that more resources are needed to help people with addiction or mental illness.

“Just because there’s a glaring need for more resources in treatment and therapy doesn’t mean that, in the meantime, we can just funnel all their crises and outbursts to police for them to handle,” said del Pozo. “It’s a recipe for eventual disaster.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said she understands police officers’ frustration with Breault’s case, and she, too, bemoaned a lack of mental health services for people involved with the criminal justice system.

Breault was supposed to have a competency evaluation, and George said she would be loath to send someone to jail who is suffering from mental illness, but she also doesn’t want to compromise public safety.

“If he’s not competent he should be hospitalized,” George said. “It’s a tough balance in a state where I don’t believe our mental health services are adequate given the need.”

George also said that it’s possible police and the association don’t understand the limits on bail.

“It’s important to understand people are held pre-conviction for being a flight risk. The bail statute is very clear that that’s the only reason you can hold someone on bail,” George said.

There are a few limited exceptions, including when a person faces a charge that carries a life sentence. A person can also be held without bail after being charged with a violent felony, but only if the evidence for their guilt is great, there continues to be a threat of violence, and no conditions of release will address that threat.

The judge found that Breault’s case met those standards when he was ordered held without bail.

“It’s unfortunate that until you get to that level, there aren’t a lot of ways to hold somebody pending trial or conviction,” George said.

It’s also possible to impose bail or hold someone pretrial for repeatedly violating the conditions of their release, but the Supreme Court of Vermont has ruled that just having a large number of violations alone can’t be the justification for that, George said.

The repeated violations must “minimize the integrity of the system,” George said. For example, a judge could impose bail or order someone to be held in a domestic violence case if they repeatedly violate a no contact order, she said.

George said she believes that, given the difficulty of having a potentially dangerous defendant held pretrial, the judiciary should focus more resources on processing cases in a timely fashion.

The Supreme Court has set six months as the standard dispensation time for a felony and four months for a misdemeanor. The most recent available figures from the judiciary, for fiscal year 2016, show less than half of felony cases meet that standard.

In that latest report, the judiciary did not track how frequently the standard is met for misdemeanors.

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