FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | firstname.lastname@example.org
The New England First Amendment Coalition today urged the Franklin County (Vt.) Sheriff’s Department, the Winooski Police Department and Vermont State Police to make public as quickly as possible any body camera footage in their possession related to a recent fatal shooting of an unarmed burglary suspect in Winooski.
State police said the suspect, 29-year-old Jesse Beshaw, was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff on Sept. 16 after Beshaw ran from police who were attempting to execute an arrest warrant for felony burglary and two misdemeanor counts of unlawful mischief.
Several media organizations requested police camera footage of the incident through Vermont’s public records law. Police denied the request saying the footage is part of an ongoing criminal investigation and exempt from disclosure.
“As more officers throughout the region begin using body and dash cams, it’s necessary for police departments to set a standard of transparency and trust,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “In police shooting cases such as this, there is a need for credibility and camera footage provides an important source of information for the public. The recordings in this case should be released as soon as possible so the public better understands how the shooting occurred and how law enforcement reacted.”
The incident began at 4:55 p.m. on Friday when three Winooski police officers attempted to serve the warrant. According to state police, Beshaw fled and was pursued by the officers, along with Nick Palmier, a deputy sheriff in adjoining Franklin County, who was in the area. The chase ended behind the O’Brien Community Center.
State police said Palmier fired seven shots. Six hit Beshaw in the front torso or head, and the seventh grazed him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
State police are conducting an independent investigation, but have provided few details. They did say Palmier and Winooski officers were wearing department-issued body cameras that captured video and audio of events leading up to and during the shooting. According to a state police news release:
Video footage from Deputy Palmier’s body cam shows Beshaw stopping as Deputy Palmier is approaching from a distance. Deputy Palmier can be heard yelling verbal commands to Beshaw. Ignoring the commands, Beshaw is then seen advancing toward Deputy Palmier with his right hand concealed behind his back. Deputy Palmier discharged his firearm multiple times as Beshaw continued to advance toward him. Beshaw is then seen falling to the ground. Winooski officers arrived shortly after and began to render medical aid to Beshaw until St. Michaels rescue arrived on scene. Beshaw was pronounced deceased on scene by rescue.
The three police agencies have not held a news conference on the shooting, but instead have distributed news releases with limited information.
Silverman said it is essential for all law enforcement agencies to be transparent with videos and public information. This, he said, is an opportunity for law enforcement agencies in Vermont to begin providing that transparency and building public trust. He noted that even though state police have provided their own narrative, the public should be able to see the body camera footage to determine for itself how the shooting occurred.
Questions about body cameras, their use by law enforcement and their implication on public record laws have become increasingly common as more officers are beginning to use the technology.
The Caledonian Record newspaper in St. Johnsbury, for example, went to Vermont Superior Court in 2014 to obtain dash-cam video from the Vermont State Police concerning an 18-mile high-speed pursuit and subsequent police shooting of an escapee. Vermont’s public safety commissioner, a former state prosecutor, ultimately released the videos before the suspect was arraigned, saying they were public records and the public’s interest in the videos outweighed fair trial concerns. The victim, who was paralyzed, later testified he was shot 13 times by the two Vermont State Troopers. The shooting was eventually ruled justified by state and local prosecutors.
In May, Burlington (Vt.) Police posted to YouTube its body camera video from a standoff that ended in a fatal police shooting of a mentally unstable man wielding two knives at officers in his apartment. Links to the videos were provided to media only. The release came after media members filed requests under the state’s public records law.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe and Boston University.