Vergennes shooting draws attention to police procedure

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(Host) The shooting of a Vergennes man by state police over the weekend has brought focus to the issue of law enforcement procedures. It was the ninth police shooting incident in the last three years. Vermont State Police say Merrill Patten pointed a loaded shotgun at officers when they went to arrest him on domestic violence charges. But Patten’s friends say the authorities could have done more to defuse the situation.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Merrill Patten’s death is under investigation by the state police, the attorney general’s office, and by the Addison County State’s Attorney. Police held a news briefing Monday to provide more details of the incident. During the briefing, Patten’s friends accused police of acting too quickly when an officer shot him early Sunday morning.

Vergennes resident Tim Alexander says he knew Patten for 20 years. He says police could have used him or Patten’s relatives to try to resolve the situation without violence.

(Alexander) “I feel it was unjustified. I really do. Like I said, if they would have gotten hold of his father, myself, a few other close friends, he could have been talked down. He would have handed the gun right over. He was scared.”

(Dillon) But police say they’re trained to act quickly and decisively when confronted by a suspect who points a weapon. State Police Captain William Pettengill says officers were sent to arrest Patten after his girlfriend filed a domestic violence complaint. According to police, the girlfriend said Patten had a weapon in the apartment and that he indicated he could shoot her, himself or the police.

When police arrived at the upstairs apartment, Pettengill says the lights went out and officers heard the metallic sound of a firearm being loaded. Pettengill says Patten ignored numerous commands to drop the weapon. And he told Patten’s friends that the police had to react quickly when they saw the shotgun pointed at them. He said police do not have a policy of firing warning shots.

(Pettengill) “Our training dictates that we shoot to stop. Every situation, I stress, is so much different. I know it’s hard for you to believe but when you’re faced by an adversary who has a 12 gauge shotgun pointed at you 10 feet away and if he pulls the trigger your head comes off, I think you would have a different viewpoint on that. It’s very important that we go home safe. And nothing says that the state police have to take a shotgun blast to the face.”

(Dillon) Patten was shot five times at close range. The incident is the ninth police shooting in three years, and the sixth fatality. According to Colonel Thomas Powlovich, the state police director, officers may be facing more potentially violent situations in Vermont.

(Powlovich) “I don’t think the training is any different. I do think we’re encountering more people that have firearms that are obviously pointing them at police officers.”

(Dillon) Police have also raised the possibility that Patten was suicidal and may have wanted the police to kill him.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Vergennes.

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