The Associated Press

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Police said Friday they would begin enforcing a ban on camping in a downtown park after a man staying with Occupy Vermont protesters apparently shot and killed himself.

Police identified the man as Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old transient originally from northeastern Vermont. He died at a hospital on Thursday, about three hours after the shooting, in which witnesses told police Pfenning shot himself in the head with a semi-automatic handgun.

Three other men were with Pfenning in a tent when he shot himself, police said. They added in a statement that “just prior to the fatal shot, Mr. Pfenning had pointed the gun and threatened another person inside the tent where this occurred.”

The incident pointed to what police said is a growing phenomenon at Occupy encampments around the country – some are becoming blends of protests against perceived economic injustice and a place for homeless people, often struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, to gather.

“The primary reason that he was here was because he had no place else to go,” Gabriel Brunelle, a longtime friend of Pfenning and fellow graduate of North County Union High School in Newport, said Friday about the dead man.

Brunelle was among a group of people who milled about in City Hall Park, just outside the yellow police tape that surrounded a group of tents where protesters and an unknown number of homeless people had been camping since late October.

Members of both groups said the alliance between them was natural: Occupy protesters said Pfenning was a military veteran who was not getting the government services he needed to get his life on track. Brunelle said Pfenning was “supportive of the movement” but also advocated small government and gun-ownership rights. Brunelle said Pfenning had struggled for years with alcoholism; police said he had consumed a large amount of alcohol before the shooting.

Deputy Police Chief Andi Higbee said Pfenning “was discharged from the Army after approximately two weeks in boot camp.” Pfenning had several previous encounters with police, Higbee said, adding he did not know if Pfenning had been charged with any crimes. Police said the gun recovered at the scene was stolen from a home in the northeastern Vermont town of Derby in 2009.

Police barred the campers from access to their tents Thursday night, saying that the section of the park where they had been set up was a crime scene and they needed to secure evidence. On Friday, Police Chief Michael Schirling said he had become convinced that the tents needed to be removed, because Thursday’s events demonstrated safety could not be maintained within the encampment.

The chief said: “We now must balance the safety issues that have become so vivid in the last 24 hours, balancing the need for free speech with the safety concerns. Our assessment is that absent an option that, to date, no one has brought forward, the presence of tents is no longer a safe and viable alternative.”

Police have a city ordinance to rely on that they had not been enforcing since protesters occupied the park on Oct. 28: The park is technically closed between midnight and 6 a.m.

Schirling said police had tried to cooperate with the protesters. “We fully recognize and support the need to foster an environment in which lawful protest can occur.” But he said the roughly two dozen tents in the park were “sub-environments,” where, in some cases, heavy drinking and drug use was going on, and that police could not assure their safety.

Police said campers were encouraged to report to one of the officers on duty in the park so they could be escorted through the crime-scene tape to retrieve their tents and other belongings.

Emily Reynolds, who said she had been asked by the protesters to represent them to the media, said Friday that she could not comment on the police request that the tents be removed because the group’s General Assembly had not met to agree on a position.

But a short time later, a note was posted on the Occupy Vermont-Burlington Facebook site criticizing the police decision. “One of our campers shot himself in his tent yesterday and the police and city are using the tragedy to shut down our encampment,” it said. “There is no risk to the public, and there never was. This is a peaceful, non-violent action.”