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Office of the Vermont Attorney General

Hartford Police Officer Will Not Be Prosecuted for Fatal Officer-Involved Shooting

November 15, 2021

Contact: Charity R. Clark, Chief of Staff, 802-828-3171

The Attorney General’s Office today announced it has concluded its review of the fatal officer-involved shooting incident that occurred on August 5, 2021, in Hartford, Vermont. The Attorney General’s Office has declined to prosecute Hartford Police Department Corporal Eric Clifford for charges related to the fatal shooting of Joseph Howard. Based on the facts and circumstances and consistent with Vermont law, the Attorney General’s Office has concluded that 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. In reaching its decision, the Office reviewed all materials provided by the Vermont State Police, who conducted the investigation.

In the early afternoon of August 5, 2021, Hartford Police Department dispatch received a 9-1-1 call from a homeowner who reported that an unknown man identifying as Joseph Howard was in their driveway and was refusing to leave. The homeowner was concerned for their safety and asked that police respond immediately.

Hartford Police Department Corporal Eric Clifford arrived at the home six minutes later. Corporal Clifford contacted Mr. Howard at the top of the driveway. Mr. Howard was seated in the passenger seat of the homeowner’s truck with the door open and was acting strangely. Corporal Clifford asked Mr. Howard if he lived at the residence and what he was doing. He asked Mr. Howard his name, and Mr. Howard stepped out of the truck and shut the door. Corporal Clifford told Mr. Howard to stay in the truck, but Mr. Howard exited and stood. Mr. Howard seemed agitated and asked, “What are you going to spray me and sick the dogs on me?” referring to Corporal Clifford’s K9-marked patrol car and the pepper spray he was holding. Corporal Clifford asked Mr. Howard for his name and where he lived. Mr. Howard gave his name, but took his hat off and started to move purposefully towards Corporal Clifford, ignoring his commands to stay put. Corporal Clifford backed away from Mr. Howard, raising his pepper spray and telling him to stay where he was while radioing for backup to “step it up, combative male.”

Mr. Howard continued to walk toward Corporal Clifford, then threw his hat at Corporal Clifford. Corporal Clifford told Mr. Howard repeatedly to stop as Corporal Clifford backed away around the truck. Corporal Clifford told Mr. Howard to “stay right there,” but Mr. Howard walked aggressively toward him. Corporal Clifford then began to pepper spray Mr. Howard. As Corporal Clifford began deploying his pepper spray, he tripped over a tarp-covered pile in the driveway. He regained his footing and continued to pepper spray Mr. Howard as Mr. Howard rushed him. Mr. Howard knocked Corporal Clifford to the ground, placed him in a chokehold from behind, and punched and strangled him.

Corporal Clifford broke away from Mr. Howard and moved into the yard to distance himself. Mr. Howard attacked Corporal Clifford a second time—again knocking him to the ground, placing him in a chokehold from behind, and strangling and punching him.

During the first attack, Corporal Clifford’s body camera was knocked off and fell facing down in the driveway but continued to capture audio. Corporal Clifford is heard yelling, “Stop!” multiple times. After twelve seconds or so of audible struggle, Corporal Clifford fired two shots at close range at Mr. Howard as he strangled him from behind.

Corporal Clifford requested backup multiple times during the encounter but knew other officers would be delayed due to road construction. Shortly after the shooting, another Hartford Police Department officer arrived at the scene. Corporal Clifford lost consciousness and fell to the ground. Emergency Medical Services arrived minutes later and pronounced Mr. Howard deceased at the scene. Corporal Clifford regained consciousness and was transferred to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Mr. Howard’s autopsy report stated that his cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the chest. Toxicology results showed that Mr. Howard had a combination of methadone, anabolic steroids, and THC metabolites in his system at the time of the shooting.

Under Vermont law at the time of the incident, a person who kills or wounds another “in the just and necessary defense of his own life…shall be guiltless.” 13 V.S.A. § 2305(1). In Vermont, self-defense is justified when (1) the defendant was not the initial aggressor; (2) the defendant was justified in using a reasonable amount of force against another; and (3) he reasonably believed (a) that he was in immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from his adversary and (b) that the use of such force was necessary to avoid this danger.

In this case, Corporal Clifford reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm at the hands of Mr. Howard. Under these facts and circumstances and consistent with Vermont law, the actions of the officer were justified. The Attorney General’s Office has declined to file charges against Corporal Clifford.

The lawfulness of this shooting was also analyzed under 13 VSA §2305(3), which became effective after the incident on October 1, 2021. Corporal Clifford’s use of deadly force against Mr. Howard was justified under amended 13 VSA §2305(3), and 20 VSA §2368(c) as it was objectively reasonable and necessary to prevent Corporal Clifford’s imminent death or serious injury. Mr. Howard had the ability, opportunity, and intent to cause Corporal Clifford serious harm or death, as shown by Mr. Howard attacking, overpowering, strangling, and punching him. Corporal Clifford was not the aggressor and was not attempting to restrain or arrest Mr. Howard when Mr. Howard attacked him unprovoked. 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. 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. 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.

Last modified: November 15, 2021