By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger
A video of citizens violently apprehending an alleged shoplifter at the Rutland Home Depot has highlighted frustration over crime and the vigilantism that can crop up alongside it.
The video of the incident, viewed more than 55,000 times on Facebook, appears to tell a deeper story than the arrest made in its wake.
Timothy Shaw, 42, of Rutland is seen pushing a shopping cart loaded with power tools. The person taking the video, pursuing Shaw, heckles him. “You just walked out with all this shit,” he yelled. “You’re not f—ing walking off with that f—ing shit.”
At this point, the video gets violent. The cameraman pushes Shaw in the face and tips over the cart. As Shaw bends to pick up the boxes, the man behind the camera pushes him to the ground. Shaw, stumbling to his feet, is kicked back down by the man behind the camera, twice.
Two more men apprehend Shaw, pushing him off camera. More physical fighting sounds like it occurred out of view.
Police charged Shaw with grand larceny after the Nov. 26 incident. According to Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman, Shaw — who appears to have been assaulted in the video — declined to press charges as a result of the encounter.
A record 56% of Americans believe crime is up where they live — more than ever before, according to a poll from Gallup, which has measured the metric since 1972.
(The data on actual crime rates varies but generally has increased in the past couple years after decades of decline since the ’90s, according to Bureau of Justice.)
Could those feelings lead citizens to take crime fighting into their own hands, even turning to violence in order to do so?
The video’s original poster said he had not taken the video and was not present for the incident. He declined to comment further.
Shaw was arrested after the Home Depot incident and is now being held without bail on numerous charges stemming from a Nov. 22 incident in which he allegedly pulled a knife on employees while trying to steal from Tractor Supply in Rutland, according to an affidavit written by Ted Washburn, deputy police chief in Rutland Town.
WCAX first reported on the Home Depot incident in a story under the banner “vigilante justice.”
“A shoplifter stopped in his tracks by others on scene,” began the report by WCAX anchor Darren Perron.
In the segment, WCAX talked to Ian Sullivan, Rutland County’s state’s attorney, about a “rise” in retail theft, robbery and assault.
“We believe those types of offenses really warrant a very vigorous response from law enforcement,” Sullivan said. Neither he nor Perron delved into the specifics of the Facebook video or the behavior of the “others on scene.”
Asked whether the Home Depot incident had led to any additional charges, such as charges against the bystanders who apprehended Shaw, Sullivan told VTDigger that “we have no other charges related to that event.”
At the time of his WCAX interview, Sullivan said he had seen the video of Shaw’s apprehension in the Home Depot parking lot.
Declining to speak about the specific case, Sullivan acknowledged that citizen’s arrests exist in law, and are “a complex topic that depends on the severity of the offense, and the nature of how the offense is being committed.”
According to Robert Sand, founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School and a former Windsor County state’s attorney, Vermont statute makes mention of citizen’s arrest in only one circumstance.
“We have statutory authorization for a citizen arrest for someone who would have the designation of a fugitive from justice from another jurisdiction,” Sand said.
But despite limited mention in written law, the Vermont Supreme Court has previously considered the concept.
“As far as I can tell, the only instances where our Supreme Court has explicitly or implicitly recognized the right of citizens to make an arrest is where they witness a crime that rises to the level of a breach of peace,” Sand said. “I know what your next question is going to be. ‘What the heck is a crime that rises to the level of breach of peace?’ And I can’t find a perfect definition.”
Although “breach of peace” may not be a neatly defined concept, previous judicial decisions have indicated that driving with a suspended license does not constitute a breach of peace, but reckless driving does, according to Sand.
“So my general sense is there has to be some imminent or potential harm if the behavior isn’t curtailed, but that’s still pretty darn vague,” Sand said. “Is shoplifting or theft a breach of peace? Well, if you’re the store owner, perhaps. But I don’t know that the Vermont Supreme Court would say that shoplifting constitutes a breach of peace.”
‘We have people out here that are watching’
Shaw, who has five previous felony convictions as well as 22 misdemeanors, is well known to Rutland Town Police. So, too, is the Home Depot video.
“Where (Shaw) got the shit kicked out of him by would-be contractors?” Ed Dumas, Rutland Town police chief, said when asked about the Home Depot incident.
“Maybe if the Legislature would let us change the bail laws back so when that guy steals from three different businesses in one day, we could put him in jail, that wouldn’t happen,” Dumas said of the video. “We do not like arresting the same people four times in one day for the same crime.”
In Vermont, people charged with crimes by the state may be held without bail only if they are deemed a flight risk, are charged with a crime punishable by life in prison, or have committed a violent felony. According to Dumas, that system has allowed nonviolent offenders to repeatedly commit crimes like retail theft.
Asked whether citizens should step in when they see crimes being committed, or whether he would not recommend the actions seen in the Home Depot video, Dumas was mum.
“I have no comment on that.”
People in Rutland, though, are taking matters into their own hands.
Earlier this year, Chris Ghio, who lives in Rutland City, started Rutland City Patrol, a citizens group that aims to reduce crime. He has experience in a volunteer police program and has worked as a volunteer firefighter. But it’s passion that inspired him to form the group.
“I was one of those people who sat on Facebook complaining about crime,” Ghio said. “I basically just said, ‘You know, I’m gonna start doing patrols and seeing if I can catch people either breaking into buildings or breaking into vehicles.’ And we’ve actually caught quite a few.”
According to Ghio, the local police have tried to funnel the energy behind Rutland City Patrol into a 12-week training program that would culminate in their participating in Project VISION, a coalition of organizations, government, businesses and individuals formed in 2013 with the goal of building a better future for Rutland. What exactly that would entail, Ghio wasn’t sure. But for people who work full time, like himself, a 12-week training program sounds prohibitive.
“We’re hoping to obviously work closely with Rutland City Police. And they want us to do the Project Vision thing. I don’t know all the details on that. I don’t know if that’s the route we’re gonna go,” Ghio said.
Thus far, Ghio has between eight and 12 people patrolling five to seven nights a week. They’ve got radios, T-shirts, and custom car magnets announcing their presence. Originally operating for free, Ghio now hopes property and business owners will pay between $50 and $100 per month for targeted patrols. That money would pay for gas and additional equipment, he said.
Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen did not respond to a request for comment on the civilian patrols Thursday afternoon.
For now, Ghio, 43, and his colleagues drive around the streets, hoping to deter criminals and stop crimes in progress. Often, they call Rutland police. Sometimes, just telling a person committing a crime that the cops are on their way is enough to deter a crime in progress, Ghio said.
“I told my guys to, you know, use your brain and try keeping things as safe as possible, try to treat people with respect,” he added. “If you think something’s going on, your first call should be to the police department.”
Like the state’s attorney and the Rutland Town police chief, Ghio has seen the Home Depot video. His thoughts?
“No matter what way you look at it, the guy was assaulted,” Ghio said of Shaw. “Yes, what he’s doing is terrible. But he doesn’t deserve to get assaulted.”
For now, Rutland City Patrol remains a small but active organization. Its Facebook group has swelled to more than 2,200 members. Ghio has dreams of a dedicated patrol car and bulletproof vests. He’s not there yet, but he still believes he’s making a dent.
“If you’re coming to Rutland to commit crimes and deal drugs, I want people to know that you might want to pick another city,” he said. “Because we have people out here that are watching. It’s more than just the police. We’ve got a community.”