Last Friday members of the Vermont State Police tactical unit shot and killed a 32-year-old Poultney man during an armed standoff.

Michael Battles, 32, was reportedly killed by a single shot in the head after he pointed a gun at police from his second story window. Police, who were at Battles home to arrest him for aggravated domestic assault, learned later that Battles’ revolver was a BB-gun.

The officers involved are on paid administrative leave, as is policy, while the incident is investigated.

On Tuesday, VTDigger asked for “video or audio the department has of the incident, including any dashboard camera video from cruisers or audio captured on any recording devices worn by officers,” under Vermont’s open record law. Police denied the request, citing the public record exemption for open criminal investigations (1 V.S.A. § 317).

VTDigger has appealed the decision to Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson.

We’re disappointed with the initial rejection by the State Police and hope Commissioner Anderson will follow the transparent lead of his predecessor, Keith Flynn.

Flynn took a meaningful first step toward openness, transparency and accountability when, in 2014, he sided with us in releasing dash-cam footage of a high-speed pursuit and police shooting of a dangerous felon. Though police at first refused The Caledonian-Record request for the video – arguing it was part of an open criminal investigation – Flynn later granted our appeal.

“In order to engage in a meaningful process that is open and accessible to all parties I find that the video is a public record subject to disclosure and therefore I agree to the release of the video,” Flynn wrote in his decision.

In the first part of last year, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo followed suit in releasing body camera footage of a fatal police shooting of a knife-wielding man, under the state’s right-to-know law.

Last September Vermont State Police took a step backward when they rejected requests, from several media organizations, for the shooting of 29-year-old burglary suspect Jesse Beshaw by a Franklin County Sheriff in Winooski.

The video was released weeks later by the Attorney General’s office and wholly exonerated Deputy Sheriff Nick Palmier.

The refusal to release the video by State Police drew the attention of the New England First Amendment Coalition, which rightly called on police to release the footage.

“As more officers throughout the region begin using body and dash cams, it’s necessary for police departments to set a standard of transparency and trust,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “In police shooting cases such as this, there is a need for credibility and camera footage provides an important source of information for the public. The recordings in this case should be released as soon as possible so the public better understands how the shooting occurred and how law enforcement reacted.”

We agree wholeheartedly agreed with Silverman and think his comments are as applicable to the Battles shooting as they were in Beshaw. As body and dashboard cameras become more prevalent among police, Vermont can and should lead the nation and provide a model playbook by embracing transparency and building public trust.

There’s no doubt in our minds that Commissioner Flynn and del Pozo were right and deserve credit for their acknowledgement that these videos are public and the standard for denying the public’s lawful access to them should be extremely high. We hope authorities involved in the latest tragedy will similarly embrace the spirit of openness and accountability, upon which public trust is predicated.

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