Burlington commission looks at police response to mental health incidents

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Three years ago this week a Burlington man in a mental health crisis was killed by police in his home.

Even though the shooting of Phil Grenon was later ruled as justified, it raised questions about whether it could have been avoided. Now, a confidential commission is investigating. Their goal isn't to cast blame, but rather to figure out how to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The moments leading up to Grenon's death are hard to watch. The Burlington man was in the midst of a psychotic episode and wielding a knife when he lunged at police officers who entered his bathroom on March 21, 2016. The 76-year-old died from officer's bullets in his shower.

"I think it shocked people and they wanted to do something about it," said Wilda White, one of the community members who, in the wake of Grenon's death, asked what could have prevented this. "I thought, we have no idea what the facts are."

The Mental Health Crisis Response Commission was created in 2017 to investigate Grenon's death and get those facts. White is their Chair. They're looking at not just the moments where police were involved, but everything in the weeks, months and years of his life leading up to that night.

"The root cause could have happened years ahead of time," White said. It's important, she says, that we learn from these cases because people in mental or emotional crises are at the highest risk of being killed by police.

"I think we can do better," said Hilary Melton, the executive director of Pathways Vermont, a group that works with people experiencing mental health issues. "There's a lot of stigma that continues to be involved, and bias about what that is, and fear, I think."

Melton says changing the way the community, including police, interact with people who are struggling with mental health isn't easy. "I think we need more education. I think we need more funding for more community resources, particularly for peer support ," she said.

"We consider our efforts a failure in this case," said Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo.

BPD made changes in the aftermath of Grenon's death, including the creation of an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) which now patrols the streets.

"The goal is to try to resolve everything as low-key as possible," said Burlington Police Sgt. Justin Couture. Inside the ERV is equipment he says they use in crisis situations. "These are ballistic shields, these are acrylic shields, these are our two robots."

He shows another tool, what's known as a Y bar. "Two of us would be on this end, and if we've got somebody on that end we can hold them up against a wall in a confined space," Couture explained.

Cameras, throw phones and gear that Couture says are designed to keep officers further away from the danger. "The more distance we have, it gives us time," he said.

Many of the tools like rope to tie doors shut are to add time to a situation. Time where officers can try to de-escalate it. "In a nutshell, it's talking to people. De-escalation is really getting people to talk. And if we can do that and add that time into things, then it just improves our chance of a better outcome," Couture said.

But as in the Grenon case, sometimes de-escalation tactics don't work. That's where some other equipment on the ERV might come in. Beanbag guns, pepper ball launchers, and other less-lethal projectiles, Including water. "It's just kind of pressurized water. Not going to do any damage, but hopefully give us enough of a distraction and advantage that we can use that," Couture said.

Wilda White says less-lethal means might have prevented Grenon's death, but it won't address the root cause. "It would be even better to figure out a way that police weren't even called to the apartment," she said.

The commission's report is due out at the end of September. White says while Grenon's death spurred its creation, the commission will be investigating other cases too, including ones where the outcome was positive. They want to hear what worked in those situations.