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Divisions over shooting trouble Brattleboro board

December 19, 2001

By SUSAN SMALLHEER Southern Vermont Bureau

BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro town officials broke two weeks of near-silence Tuesday and said they were “frightened” by the divisions developing in their community over the recent shooting by police of a distraught man at a church.

Robert S. Fagelson, chairman of the Brattleboro Select Board, said he would be at a special community memorial service for Robert A. Woodward today in an effort to keep communication open in the town and heal divisions.

“The dialogue is breaking down. We’re polarized and it’s frightened me,” Fagelson said.

But Fagelson and Town Manager Jerry Remillard said there had been a good reason for the two weeks of silence about the fatal shooting: In the event of disciplinary actions against officers Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker, the Select Board and Remillard must act as judges.

“The response of the Select Board and town manager to this tragic incident has been muted for several reasons: Two separate investigations are ongoing regarding the incident. Direct comments could influence, or appear to influence, the potential outcome of those investigations,” Remillard said.

Woodward, 37, was shot seven times and killed Dec. 2 at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro. Three officers — Holbrook, Parker and John Davies —responded to the church that morning after parishioners called for help. Woodward, armed with a small knife, disrupted the Sunday morning service, claiming he was a victim of political persecution and threatened to kill himself.

Davies never fired his weapon.

The shooting of Woodward, who has been described as a peaceful person with no history of mental illness, has prompted two investigations — one by the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office and another by the Attorney General’s Office. Both are relying on work by Vermont State Police detectives.

Fagelson said the community was “polarized” over whether police acted properly in the use of fatal force, something he said would lead to no good. “It’s tending that way, and it’s frightening me,” he said.

Brattleboro prides itself on its diversity and its tolerance of diverse viewpoints, Fagelson said, but he felt the “dialogue was breaking down” and he wanted to help re-establish lines of communication.

People who didn’t know Woodward have organized Wednesday’s service at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. The service, which will be followed by a candlelight procession through downtown Brattleboro, starts at 6 p.m.

Select Board member Sarah Edwards said she also would be attending the memorial service for Woodward out of respect for both Woodward and the community.

“It’s a chance for the community to acknowledge a tragedy. It’s a chance for the community to come together and grieve,” she said after the regular board meeting Tuesday night.

Fagelson had used the regular board meeting to address the community via the local cable television station about the events at All Souls.

He said the board was very concerned about Woodward’s family and friends, the police officers and the police community, as well as the members of the All Souls Church.

Remillard said he also would be attending the service. Other board members said they would try to attend, as their job commitments allowed.

Fagelson said it was too soon to say whether he supported a citizen review panel established to work with the police department.

But Edwards said she thought anything that involved the public in helping to establish policy in town government was good democracy.

Reading a prepared statement, Remillard didn’t address the events at the church, but defended acting Police Chief John Martin, the return of the two officers to active duty, and the department’s policy on use of deadly force.

Martin’s decision to go on a previously scheduled vacation the afternoon of the shooting has sparked debate in the community. But Remillard said Martin was involved in the initial response, and left on vacation in the afternoon.

While Martin was on vacation, Remillard said, he was in communication with the department and he returned early only two days later, cutting short his vacation by two days.

Remillard also acted to debunk a prevalent rumor that the police department had changed its deadly force policy since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“This is an unfounded rumor that has no basis,” Remillard said.

“No change has occurred in the deadly force policy for many years,” he said. The policy, which was implemented by the late Chief Bruce Campbell 11 years ago, largely follows the state policy followed by the Vermont State Police.

Remillard said the two officers who shot Woodward were evaluated by a psychologist, who is specially trained in the evaluation of police officers involved in fatal shootings.

The two officers are on restricted active duty, the town manager said, which means they can only patrol with another officer and they are put on administrative duties. He said the two officers were being monitored by the department for their reintegration on the job.

Remillard has issued two brief statements since the shooting, both having to do with the response of the town’s rescue and ambulance crew to the church.

Contact Susan Smallheer at