In the early morning hours of Jan. 16, an incident at the DoubleTree Hotel on Williston Road endangered the lives of guests, employees and police.
According to police, a man was experiencing a mental health crisis, armed with two handguns and wearing a bulletproof vest. Arriving officers learned that hotel staff had seen the man outside of his room holding a handgun in each hand. A family member called police and reported that the man was having homicidal ideations. In other words, the man was thinking about killing others.
It took over two hours, but a Burlington Police crisis negotiator spoke to the subject on the phone and was able to convince him that the police were there to help him. The man surrendered to police peacefully.
But it could have gone either way, and South Burlington could have been the location of the latest mass shooting. As the number of mental health-related incidents continues to rise and police are increasingly called to deal with those incidents, there has been a shift in the training and sensitivity in handling those cases.
South Burlington Police and Fire, Burlington Police, University of Vermont Police, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms all responded to the incident. South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke said in an interview Monday that this new reality of policing requires new tactics.
“This subject felt there was a credible threat to his life and he was trying to protect himself,” Burke said. “The responding officers used their heads and realized what we were faced with. It would’ve been a much different outcome if they had decided to knock on (the subject’s) door.
“There is a lot of training and philosophy built into the training,” Burke added, “and these mental health incidents are so much more prevalent now.”
Police were able to evacuate guests from the wing of the hotel where the subject was located and cordon off the area. Burke credited the staff of the DoubleTree Hotel and the other guests for their cooperation and understanding of the measures the police were forced to take in order to keep everyone involved safe.
“We assembled a team of negotiators so we could work in concert effectively and cordon off the perimeter to keep people away,” Burke said.
The key to the subject’s peaceful surrender, the police chief said, was pace and timing.
“Using time and distance to slow everything down, and using that time to avoid a fatal encounter,” Burke said.
Mental health policing
The South Burlington Police Department is one of six area communities that has incorporated mental health policing into its philosophy.
The community outreach program for mental health was officially launched in April 2018. The program allows for four mental health clinicians, known as community outreach specialists, to be embedded within the public service departments of South Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, Essex, Shelburne, and Williston. The program was designed as a separate but parallel program to the Howard Center’s successful Street Outreach Team initiative. Five months after the program’s launch, South Burlington had encouraging news on the initial results of the program.
From April 30-June 30, 2018, departments in all six towns had 247 contacts with individuals. This figure was further broken down by the number of face-to-face contacts and what action, if any, was taken, such as transport to the Emergency Department or referral to Howard Center programs (144 people were referred to 192 Howard Center programs).
In South Burlington, there were 50 face-to-face services administered in the city during the April-June time frame, which represents about 30 percent of the 171 total contacts and is also the highest total of all towns. The second highest was Winooski with 31 contacts. South Burlington also had the highest number of contacts (41) from July 2-Aug. 17, 2018. It should be noted that the data was collected during the hours the specialists work, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
At the time the data was reported to the city council last August, former Police Chief Trevor Whipple added that South Burlington’s business demographic creates a policing need.
Whipple said that South Burlington has the greatest number of hotels, in addition to the University Mall and cautioned that the figures don’t necessarily mean there have been more incidents, but that the department has been better able to identify and address mental health needs. Whipple added that with the additional tool of mental health specialists, the approach to calls has shifted. For example, what once would have been approached as a disorderly conduct call for someone making a disturbance in public, is now often approached through the lens of a potential mental health issue.
During last week’s incident at the DoubleTree, the subject ultimately did not leave the area near his room, and through thoughtful negotiation, Burke said the subject was able to get the help he needed.
“I think we’re having a much different conversation because of the positive outcome, but the hours that led up to that surrender were key,” Burke said. “I hope I’ve been crystal clear with everyone that it really only takes one poor decision on the staff side and this could have ended much differently.”