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Letters to the editor

December 11, 2001

Open, honest answers needed


Editor of the Reformer:

As one of the 18 members of All Souls Church who stayed and witnessed the shooting of Bob Woodward a week ago, I feel that some misconceptions should be clarified.

To begin with, I have heard no criticism from any of our church members of the three policemen who were called to perform their duty that Sunday morning, but only heartfelt sympathy for the stress and grief we know they are feeling. I think I can speak for all our church members in hoping that their healing process can take place without leaving deep emotional scars.

But at the same time, many of us are very critical of the inappropriate procedures they were trained, maybe poorly, to use.

"Woody" Woodward was a complete stranger to us. He even had to stop in front of the First Congregational Church to ask directions. When he breathlessly stepped up to our podium to introduce himself and ask for our help, our initial disbelief turned into an effort to help him. First we had to calm him down. Because I was within three feet of him, I offered that we could go talk in the office, but he only became more agitated. When I next suggested that we all leave, he drew a knife, held it within inches of his eyes and threatened suicide. Although many people were frightened by that possibility, no one has said they ever thought that he might harm them.

Three or four professionals in the congregation recognized his psychotic state (one looked at his eyes to determine that drugs were not involved) and took the initiative as individuals.

Over a 15-minute period all of the children and most of the congregation had left the room. A cell phone was produced and "Woody" was seated at the front of the room next to a counselor who dialed a number he had given as a reference. The knife was back in his pocket.

Then the police arrived. Judging from the time on the answering machine tape of the phone that had just been dialed, which recorded the whole event, "Woody" had jumped up, put the knife to his eyes again and was then on the floor with six bullets in him (the first one missed), all within two minutes.

We feel that we and the rest of the community should hear from town policy makers as to why the "shoot to kill" policy was adopted in Brattleboro, and under what circumstances it is to be used. More important, what training should the policemen receive for using some discretion, or what non-uniformed negotiators should accompany them?

Rumor has it that women officers have proven superior in negotiating peaceful settlements in emotion-charged situations, perhaps because they are less threatening and more skilled as negotiators. Most important, the leadership of the department must be in the hands of a chief who is skilled by training and experience in conducting negotiations under stress so that it's importance as the first option permeates the police force.

Another unresolved issue is why 'Woody," who had no history of mental illness, became convinced between 1:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning that he had a death threat from the CIA or the FBI. It is not unreasonable to consider that his fear was based on some specific event. Because of past acts and present policies, the distrust and fear of our government has become so pervasive that this country has been able to develop its own terrorists, some who purport to be in league with the government, without help from abroad.

Until now this has been a no-win situation, where every one loses. We can change that with community effort to get some open and honest answers, so that some good can eventually come from this sad episode.

J.B.C. Thomas

Responsibility vs. accountability


Editor of the Reformer:

I want to join the growing call for an independent investigation into the the shooting death of Robert Woodward.

I also want to say that, while I understand that the job of police officer is a risky one that requires courage, I also think that when police officers use lethal force, they should be prepared to account for their actions, not only to their superiors within their departments, but also to the public in general.

Police officers are unique in our society in that they are given the authority to end any one of our lives should they see fit. However, with that responsibility must come accountability. We must not assume that the valor of the police force precludes any possibility of error. Everyone in this society is accountable for their actions, and so must our police officers be.

From all the accounts I have read and heard of what transpired in that church, I am not convinced that lethal force was necessary to protect the congregants, for I have heard no one state that Woodward threatened anyone but himself. It's hard to believe that he could not have been subdued with pepper spray, bodily tackle or shots to the extremities.

The public has a right to know whether the decision on the part of those officers to fire seven shots to his torso was justified.

I say this not only because Woody was a friend of mine for the past nine years, but also because I am concerned that our respect for the difficulty of a police officer's job should not override our willingness to seek truth and justice when a situation involving the police force ends in death.

Ursula Shea-Borneo
Shutesbury, Mass.

Any of us could have been Woody



Editor of the Reformer:

As a dear friend of Woody Woodward, I would like to respond to several letters published in your Dec. 8-9 issue. First, Juliann Ambroz states that law enforcement officers are trained to "ascertain a level of threat and respond accordingly." She also points out that they are trained in non-violent conflict resolution. For those of you who have not spoken to the parishioners of the All Souls Church as I have, many members who were physically present during this incident claim that they remained in the church -- they actually moved closer to Mr Woodward -- due to the fact that they never felt physically threatened by him in any way. How then can we justify the police shooting a frightened man seven times without one word of supplication or negotiation?

Rick and Cindy Kenyon write that "words are powerful things" -- we agree -- and the police officers failed to use words to communicate with Woody before they opened fire. A 140-pound frightened man with a pocket knife held only against himself is no match for pepper spray and a stun gun.

We are not "maligning two good men." as Goeffery Busby states. We are simply asking for a thorough and independent investigation of why two of three police officers found it necessary to use lethal force against a man with a pocket knife who threatened no one's life but his own, and this fact is confimred by members of the congregation present during this incident.

In this age of hyper-vigilance, war, and knee-jerk violent reaction, we must question the very system and culture which condones any type of violence, especially violence perpetrated by those who are sworn to "protect and serve." My heart honestly goes out to these officers and their families, and with time, their pain will also be assuaged.

Please look deep into your hearts, and know that any of us could have been Robert Woodward that day.

In these chaotic days, we all have the potential to become so fearful that our lives may feel endangered. Woody meant to harm no one, and although his actions and words brought pain and trauma to the All Souls Church and all communities connected with this tragic incident, we cannot simply say that he was a madman who lost control and was justifiably killed.

He was not an insane man; he was a man in fear for his life, justifiably or not, and he entered the church stating that if the police were called, he would be killed.

The irony is that he was right.

When you think of Robert Woodward, please remember, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Keith Carlson
Amherst, Mass.