Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy has recused herself from a review of whether an officer-involved shooting in Rutland City that left a man wounded was justified.
She is also calling for a wider discussion in the state about how such use-of-force cases are handled going forward.
“I’ve been watching the coverage that has come from George Floyd’s killing and the discourse that has come from that,” Kennedy said Thursday.
“I think,” she added, “Vermont should take a look at who investigates these and if there should be a completely separate body that is in charge of investigating these wherever it happens in the state.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed May 25 by police as a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck. It sparked demonstrations around the country seeking racial justice and police use-of-force reforms.
Typically in Vermont, in an officer-involved shooting, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the county attorney’s office that has jurisdiction over where that shooting took place conduct independent reviews to determine whether the use of force was warranted.
In an officer-involved shooting in Rutland City that happened last week during a drug investigation that sent a man to the hospital, Kennedy said she opted to step aside from conducting that review at the county level, and instead handed it over to Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver.
A total of five city officers were involved in the July 8 incident that started early in the morning in a parking lot. During that drug investigation, according to police, Officer Nate Harvey was hit by a vehicle one of the suspects, 45-year-old Michael Goodnough, was driving, and Officer Tyler Billings fired shots.
Goodnough was wounded and after a pursuit, a passenger in his SUV, 32-year-old Robert Vandriel, was hurt when they crashed into a tree.
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The Vermont Attorney General’s Office is conducting a separate review.
“The issue of who investigates these cases is always something I’ve thought about prior to this,” Kennedy said, adding that even before the shooting in Rutland City she raised the issue with some of her fellow state’s attorneys in Vermont about whether such reviews should be taken out of the county where it occurs.
“I hope that continues to be a conversation,” she said.
Often, a state’s attorney in a particular county knows the area law enforcement officers and has worked with them on past investigations or prosecutions. That could lead to the appearance of a conflict of interest when that state’s attorney conducts a review of the officer’s action in a use-of-force case.
John Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said Thursday he supported Kennedy’s decision in the latest shooting case to recuse herself.
“We believe this is a good procedure and we encourage it among the state’s attorneys when there’s a use-of force-situation,” Campbell said.
“We know things are changing around the country,” he added. “I think state’s attorneys are becoming aware that there’s the opportunity for people to say that there are obvious conflicts of interest if a state’s attorney is investigating a police officer or police departments that work with them or under their direction.”
Kennedy has reviewed two officer-involved shooting cases during her tenure as state’s attorney in Rutland County since 2015.
Kennedy, as well as the Vemont’s Attorney General’s Office, cleared Vermont State Police troopers who shot 32-year-old Michael Battles in Poultney following a standoff at a residence in that western Rutland County town in September 2017.
Also, Kennedy and the attorney general’s officer found that Rutland City officers were justified last fall in shooting and killing Christopher G. Louras, the son of the former longtime Rutland City mayor Christopher Louras.
The younger Louras had earlier that morning shot up the police station, then led police on a chase through a downtown parking lot while firing shots from his car window at pursuing officers. He eventually got out of the vehicle and exchanged gunfire with officers, and he was shot several times and died.
Police also say the younger Louras had earlier shot and killed his cousin, Nicolas Louras of Rutland, whose body was found along a road in Salisbury, about 40 minutes outside of Rutland.
Like the most recent officer-involved shooting last week, the Louras case also involved Rutland City police officers.
“I felt that I did an impartial and thorough investigation,” Kennedy said Thursday of her review in the Louras case. “I don’t think anyone doubted that.”
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She added, “There is the safeguard of having the AG’s office also look at the incident and we come to our own conclusions independently of each other.”
A difference in the latest incident in Rutland City, Kennedy said, is that her office had conversations with the police as part of the drug investigation that resulted in the shooting.
Vermont State Police, who are conducting the investigation into the shooting, say they are continuing to piece together the sequence of events.
Capt. Scott Dunlap, head of the state police major crime unit, said Thursday that investigators have already interviewed one of the officers and are expected to interview the other four Friday.
In addition to Harvey and Billings, the other city officers at the scene included Cpl. Elias Anderson, Officer Elizha Heter, and Sgt. Adam Lucia.
Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said Thursday that Billings, the officer who fired the shots, remains on administrative leave while the others are on duty.
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