Church Community Tries to Heal After Shooting Report

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(Host) A report this week by the Vermont attorney general on a police shooting in Brattleboro has closed the book on the criminal investigation. But the debate over the shooting lives on in the minds of the witnesses.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Some of the people who saw it are still haunted by the shooting last December. Eighteen people were inside the sanctuary at the All Souls Unitarian Church in West Brattleboro when police shot Robert Woodward.

Woodward was acting agitated and paranoid. He brandished a knife and threatened to kill himself if people left the church. The police were called. And within a minute of their arrival at the church, they had shot Woodward seven times. Attorney General William Sorrell concluded that the officers acted in self-defense and says charges against them aren’t justified.

Michael Italia is a Brattleboro psychologist who was also in the church that morning. He describes Woodward as being in a highly psychotic state. Italia tried to calm Woodward down and defuse the situation. He says it’s hard to judge the police actions, unless you were in the room and saw what happened:

(Italia) “I can’t speak for the officers¿and I don’t know what they were thinking. But I assume when they came in and viewed his state as well as the immediate environment of church members sitting in such close proximity¿ I would assume they felt they needed to act as quickly as possible.”

(Dillon) Italia says he’s had many sleepless nights since December 2. He says others in the church are still traumatized. He says the trauma comes not just from the shooting but also from Woodward’s frightening behavior before police arrived:

(Italia) “All I can really say is for myself and for everyone in the room, we certainly feel very saddened and almost guilt-ridden because of the outcome. I think we’re all struggling with second-guessing. Could we have done something else¿? What were the other avenues?”

(Dillon) Italia says the church remains divided. Some feel the police were justified; others argue the shooting was wrong and unnecessary. Polly Wilson is one of them. She says she believes Woodward was a danger to himself, not to others.

Wilson attended the attorney general’s news conference earlier this week. With Woodward’s friends protesting in the background, she continued her assessment of the incident. Wilson wishes the congregation had been able to do more to calm Woodward down:

(Wilson) “It’s very, very disturbing to me, for all of us, because I think it is a very important, important thing that has gone awry here. That we ¿ we didn’t prevent this happening. That those of us who were in the congregation, if we were sitting in a circle around him, it might have de-escalated things¿. We were not scared by him, we were scared for him.”

(Dillon) After all the time that’s passed, Wilson still thinks the police over-reacted and acted too quickly:

(Wilson) “I do not think it was okay. I think it was perfectly awful. It happened so fast. It was incredibly fast. It was 15 minutes from the time we arrived in church until we were told we had to get out of that room and he was lying dying on the floor at that point.”

(Dillon) Norman Hunt was also there that Sunday morning. He wants the congregation to look ahead, and try to heal:

(Hunt) “I think as we continue to meet, we will continue to come together ¿. I believe we’ve already made progress. I know we need to make more. And I hope we will. And I will certainly will try myself ¿ to our coming together, rather than being divided.”

(Dillon) Hunt also believes that Brattleboro needs a civilian review board to oversee its police force.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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