BURLINGTON, Vt. – Police officers were justified in their non-fatal shooting of a distraught man outside his mobile home but had turned off their body cameras because they were worried about the blinking lights and audible beeps giving away their positions, a prosecutor said Monday.
Two Burlington officers assisting in the Sept. 20 early morning standoff in Colchester believed their lives were in danger when they shot and wounded James Hemingway, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said.
Police were called to Hemingway’s home after they received reports he was drunk and despondent. Hemingway made repeated threats to officers, who were told he was armed, Donovan said. Hemingway drove his vehicle at a police command post and then got out and made threatening moves, authorities said.
Burlington Sgt. Brian Labarge and Detective Rick Volp fired more than a dozen shots at Hemingway. It turned out Hemingway, 20, was armed with an air rifle and had shiny salad tongs, which officers feared was a weapon, tucked into his pants.
Three of the four Burlington officers at the scene had turned their body cameras off because they worried a blinking red light and beeping could jeopardize their safety, Donovan and others said. But Donovan said he wanted to know more about the Taser Axon cameras and the tactical concerns they raise.
“Officers should not have to choose (between) performing (the) core functions of their jobs and ensuring their own safety by leaving their body cameras on,” he said.
He said he hoped police departments using the Axon cameras could address the issue.
The user manual for the Axon body camera, made by Taser International Inc., of Scottsdale, Arizona, outlines how to turn off the lights and sound, but even a company spokesman said he was unaware of it before being asked on Monday.
Later Monday, Donovan told Vermont Public Radio he and police investigators may have received inaccurate information from Burlington officers regarding the capabilities of the body cameras. He said those would be investigated.
Hemingway’s attorney Benjamin Luna, who attended Donovan’s news conference, said his client’s version is different from that given by police and the lack of video means the case is based just on the officers’ recollections.
Luna said Hemingway, who is recovering from his wounds but has returned to work, is considering a lawsuit against police for excessive force.
“It’s absolutely significant that the loss of the Axon video that would have otherwise recorded visually and (audibly) what was said because much of what they’re saying are actions based on what they saw and what was said,” Luna said.
Hemingway is due in court Tuesday to answer charges stemming from the standoff.
Taser International said it recognized the body cameras’ lights could be a problem for police in specific tactical circumstances if they’re not turned off. Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle, who frequently demonstrates the cameras, said he knew how to turn off the audio but not the blinking LED.
“It’s not something you’d do daily off the top of your head,” he said.
Burlington police Deputy Chief Bruce Bovat said the shooting suggests the department was so eager to use body cameras as a way to improve accountability that officers weren’t properly trained in how to use them. He said these “deficiencies” will be remedied soon and the department will co-operate with any investigation into what the officers told Donovan.