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A full inquiry

December 9, 2001

As more information emerges about the death of Robert Woodward, the need for an independent and thorough investigation of the incident becomes all the more urgent.

Woodward died after he was shot seven times by two Brattleboro police officers who were responding to a call from the West Village Meeting House, where a church service was under way last Sunday morning.

Woodward came into the West Brattleboro church, saying the CIA and the FBI were after him. Witnesses said he was agitated and erratic. At one point he pulled out a knife, and he warned people not to come close to him.

By the time the police arrived, there were still 15 to 20 people in the meeting house, which means authorities have numerous witnesses to the shooting. And from those witnesses, a disturbing picture is emerging about police actions.

It is far from clear that Woodward represented a threat to anyone except himself at the time of the shooting. Witnesses have said police officers warned Woodward to drop the knife, but nothing except Woodward’s refusal to drop the knife has emerged as a reason that he was shot. And that is not sufficient grounds for shooting to kill.

It is important to remember that investigators are still trying to piece together from many sources a definitive account of what happened at the meeting house. At the initial stages, however, it is clear that many witnesses are dismayed at police actions, and no one has stepped forward to offer an account saying the police did what was necessary.

These public concerns require a thorough look into events at West Brattleboro. The attorney general’s office has begun an investigation, which is customary in cases of police shootings. Often such investigations confirm that officers in situations of great danger were forced by circumstance to shoot. New facts may emerge in the Woodward case to provide a valid explanation for the death of Robert Woodward. We have not heard those facts so far.

Windham County State’s Attorney Dan Davis may convene a grand jury to look into the incident, but the attorney general’s investigation will be particularly important because the attorney general is further removed from Windham County. In addition to looking at the facts of the shooting, both Davis and the attorney general’s office need to determine whether Woodward was allowed to receive the proper medical care after he was shot.

The uneasy atmosphere that has gripped the nation in the past three months has, more than likely, put many law enforcement officers on edge. In a period when everyone is supposed to be on high alert at all times, the police must be ready for threats of all kinds. It cannot be easy to live every day with an expectation of terrorism or other new and dangerous forms of violence.

But a state of high alert requires a state of extreme caution. Police must deal with distraught and disturbed people all the time; preventing harm to the disturbed person is part of the police’s job.

The police know this. The officers involved in the Woodward case – whatever happened – are probably experiencing an agony of regret. But the public must be assured that the police recognize the need for restraint in dangerous situations. A thorough search for the facts in the Woodward case will help provide that assurance.