2 federal lawsuits accuse police in Vermont of brutality

Vermont's largest city is facing two federal lawsuits that accuse police of excessive force and brutality

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Vermont's largest city is facing two federal lawsuits that accuse police officers of excessive force and brutality in separate episodes outside bars in September 2018.

Prosecutors have dropped all charges against the men suing the city of Burlington, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and certain officers. Police body cameras captured the encounters.

One lawsuit filed on behalf of Jeremie Meli says he was at a bar with his two brothers and went to the bathroom, where a verbal altercation started with several men.

Meli left, and the owner of the bar told him he had called police and followed him up 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.

By this time, other officers had arrived.

His brother Albin Meli, upset by the encounter, placed his hand on Officer Cory Campbell's shoulder and asked, "Can you please tell them to stop?" the lawsuit said. Campbell, Bellavance and other members of the police department tackled Albin, tearing a ligament in his thumb, and arrested him, the lawsuit said.

The suit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, accuses police of excessive force and the city of failing to properly sanction or discipline officers for violating constitutional rights of citizens.

Lawyer Evan Chadwick, who filed both lawsuits on behalf of his clients, had no comment Friday except to say he would let the complaint and videos speak for themselves.

Meli continues to have vision, balance and comprehension difficulties that have required special accommodations for him as he pursues a medical degree, the lawsuit said.

Bellavance was suspended after an internal investigation, del Pozo, the police chief, said Friday in a phone interview.

"In the case with Mr. Meli and Sgt. Bellavance we substantiated the finding that the sergeant's use of force was either unnecessary or unreasonably departed from his training and expectations," he said.

The second lawsuit, which also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, accuses Officer Joseph Corrow of grabbing Mabior Jok and slamming him to the ground, knocking him unconscious.

The Burlington Police Department did an internal investigation and found Corrow did not call for backup or use verbal commands, del Pozo said.

"We found that he was intervening in an attack. However, there was an expectation that he put his location and the situation over the radio and request assistance. It would have maximized the opportunity of a safer outcome for everyone," del Pozo said. "And we always expect officers, if they can safely do so, that's a big caveat, if they can safely do so, to start with verbal commands."

The department made sure to reiterate proper tactics and procedures, del Pozo said.

Jok was known to officers, del Pozo said, "as a person who has a violent history who has attacked the community and police officers."

Del Pozo said that he notified prosecutor Sarah George about both encounters and that she said the conduct she viewed did not rise to the level of a crime. An email seeking comment was sent to George on Friday.

The lawsuits were filed weeks after the medical examiner ruled as a homicide the March death of another man found three days after Campbell hit him in the head.

Douglas Kilburn, 54, hit Campbell in the face and Campbell punched him back March 11 outside the emergency room at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

The medical examiner's office said the cause of death was "undetermined terminal mechanism" due to underlying medical conditions, including high blood pressure, cardiac and cerebral vascular disease, diabetes and skull fractures from the altercation.