news 5 days ago

Vermont's largest city denies police abuse accusations

The Associated Press — By LISA RATHKE - Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont's largest city has denied accusations in two federal lawsuits that police officers used excessive force in separate episodes outside Burlington bars in September 2018.

In one lawsuit filed in May, a man says an officer shoved him with both hands without announcing his presence. The man fell backward, hit his head on a wall and was knocked out, the lawsuit states. In the second lawsuit, a man accuses another officer of slamming him to the ground, knocking him unconscious, without first announcing himself or issuing any instructions. Police body cameras captured both encounters.

A lawyer for the city, its police chief and officers involved filed a response on Monday, denying that the officers used excessive force.

In the first suit, Jeremie Meli says he was at a bar where a verbal altercation started with several men.

As Meli left, the owner of the bar told him he had called police and followed him out to the street, the lawsuit said. Officer Jason Bellavance arrived, approached the pair as they were arguing and without announcing his presence shoved Meli with both hands. Meli fell backward, hit his head on a wall and was knocked out.

The city, police chief and officers acknowledge that Bellavance pushed Meli to the ground and Meli hit his head against a wall as he fell but denied that Bellavance used excessive force or violated any "clearly established" law, said the filing by attorney Pietro Lynn. They also denied that the sound heard on Bellavance's body camera was Meli's head hitting the wall.

According to the second lawsuit, Mabior Jok was standing outside with a group when a conversation became heated. Officer Joseph Corrow, without announcing himself or issuing any instructions, then slammed Jok to the ground, knocking him unconscious, the lawsuit says.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo has said an internal investigation found Corrow did not call for backup or use verbal commands, but he did not use excessive force, according to the court filing. Del Pozo also has said that Jok was known to officers "as a person who has a violent history who has attacked the community and police officers."

The suits seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Prosecutors have dropped all charges against the men suing.

The lawsuits were filed weeks after the chief medical examiner ruled that the death of another man who was found dead three days after he was hit in the head by an officer was a homicide.

Douglas Kilburn had punched Officer Cory Campbell, and Campbell punched him back. The chief medical examiner's office said the cause of death was undetermined but referenced skull fractures from the altercation and other underlying medical conditions.