State clears officer in fatal Vermont shooting

  • Vermont State Police investigate a police shooting on Paula Street in Hartford Village, Vt., on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News
Published: 11/17/2021 6:37:39 PM

A Hartford police officer acted lawfully when he fatally shot a Bradford, Vt., man in August during a physical struggle in a residential neighborhood, according to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office

Cpl. Eric Clifford, who has been on the force for about 12 years, was responding to a call from a Hartford Village homeowner when the Aug. 5 encounter occurred that resulted in the death of 35-year-old Joseph Howard.

“Based on the facts and circumstances and consistent with Vermont law, the Attorney General’s Office has concluded Corporal Clifford’s actions were justified as Corporal Clifford reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm at the hands of Mr. Howard,” a news release stated.

The conclusion was based on a review of the shooting by Vermont State Police.

Howard’s cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the chest. A toxicology report found that Howard had methadone and anabolic steroids in his system.

Clifford, who was wearing a body camera, remains on paid administrative leave as the town awaits the result of its own external investigation into the shooting, Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis said on Monday. While a timeline has not been established, Yarlott-Davis expected the process to continue into 2022 and for Clifford to remain on paid leave until it is completed.

“I am pleased with the outcome (of the state investigation),” Yarlott-Davis said, “though we continue to reflect on the loss of a community member and what that means for all of us as a greater community.”

Prior to his death, Howard worked at Copeland Furniture in Bradford, Vt., for 10 months, according to store owner Tim Copeland, who described him as “bright, cooperative,” and “well-liked by his peers” in an August message to the Valley News.

According the Attorney General’s Office news release, the incident took place around 1:30 on a weekday afternoon at the end of  Paula Street in Hartford Village. Clifford was responding to a 9-1-1 call from a homeowner who reported Howard, whom he did not know, was in his driveway and refusing to leave.

When Clifford arrived at the home, he found Howard in the passenger seat of the homeowner’s truck with the door open, according to the release.

After Clifford asked Howard for his name, Howard got out of the truck. Clifford asked him to remain in the truck, but Howard refused and, according to body camera footage cited in the report, said “What are you going to spray me and sic the dogs on me?” in reference to the pepper spray in Clifford’s hand and his K-9 patrol car.

Clifford backed up from Howard, lifted his pepper spray and radioed “for backup to ‘step it up, combative male,’” according to the release

Howard continued to move toward Clifford, ignoring commands to stop, and Clifford used his pepper spray, according to the release. At one point, Clifford stumbled over a tarp-covered pile in the driveway but regained his footing and continued to use his pepper spray on Howard.

Howard rushed toward Clifford and knocked him to the ground and put him in a chokehold from behind and began to punch and choke him, according to the release.

During the altercation, Clifford’s body camera was knocked off his body and fell face down on the driveway. It continued to record audio of the encounter and at multiple points Clifford yelled “stop,” authorities said.

Clifford broke away and moved away from Howard, according to the release. Then Howard charged him and knocked him to the ground for a second time and resumed his chokehold.

“After 12 seconds or so of audible struggle, Corporal Clifford fired two shots at close range at Mr. Howard as he strangled him from behind,” the Attorney General’s Office said in its release.

“Corporal Clifford was not the aggressor and was not attempting to restrain or arrest Mr. Howard when Mr. Howard attacked him unprovoked,” the release stated. “Corporal Clifford tried to de-escalate the situation by giving Mr. Howard commands to stay where he was, moving away from him, and using pepper spray when Mr. Howard rushed Corporal Clifford. Corporal Clifford told Mr. Howard multiple times to ‘stop’ during Mr. Howard’s attack.”

Clifford requested backup multiple times throughout the encounter, but officers were delayed because of construction. “Shortly after the shooting,” another officer got to the scene, according to the release.

“Corporal Clifford lost consciousness and fell to the ground. Emergency Medical Services arrived minutes later and pronounced Mr. Howard deceased at the scene,” the release stated

After Clifford regained consciousness, he was transported to the hospital for treatment.

“Corporal Clifford did not believe backup would arrive in time to help him and that his baton was not a viable alternative to stop Mr. Howard’s attack,” the release said. “Given the totality of the circumstances, an objectively reasonable officer in Corporal Clifford’s situation would have been legally justified in using deadly force in self-defense.”

The Attorney General’s Office said Monday night that authorities still don’t know why Howard was at the Paula Street home where the incident took place, as he had no known connection to the homeowner.

Yarlott-Davis said Monday that is the usual practice for Hartford police officers to respond to calls alone.

After assessing a call, a dispatcher may put other officers on standby in case backup is needed. Additionally, if another Hartford police officer could not respond, the department would rely on its mutual aid partners, including the Lebanon and Hanover police departments.

“We have one officer to a car; that is the way that most everyone has had to do this work for many, many years,” she said. “If someone is remembering two officers to a car, that’s probably 10 years ago.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.


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