Measure targets shootings by police

Posted March 22, 2009, at 8:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Between 1998 and 2008, there were 54 police-involved shootings in Maine, and in 26 of them a person was killed. The state Attorney General’s Office investigates all such incidents to determine whether officers acted within the law, but if a measure now before legislators is enacted, all police use of deadly force would be reviewed by an independent panel named by the governor.

“The Attorney General’s Office is a law enforcement agency,” said Rep. Don Pilon, D-Saco, sponsor of the bill. “They do not look at each case and say, ‘Could this situation have been handled differently?’”

The attorney general’s review looks narrowly at whether the officer was legally justified in the use of deadly force, Pilon said, and a separate review is needed. He said the panel proposed in the legislation would have access to the attorney general’s report, but would go beyond the legal issues.

“There are other issues that the community asks that are not answered now,” said Rep. Lisa Miller, D-Somerville, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Should that situation have escalated to that point? Could we have followed different procedures? Could we have involved crisis workers?”

Miller said the goal is not to repeat what the attorney general is reviewing, but to conduct a broader review aimed at making policy recommendations to police agencies and to lawmakers.

According to statistics from the Attorney General’s Office, nine of the 54 police-involved shootings since 1998 occurred in 2008. In addition to the 26 cases in which a person was killed, in 14 cases a person was injured; in 13 cases, no one was hurt. One case was a suicide.

“We are seeking ways to reduce these cases,” Miller said.

Attorney General Janet Mills said she is still reviewing the bill and said the issues raised by the legislation are important. She acknowledged that the way the reports are written by her office now is limited to the legal issues involved.

“One of my goals will be to make the reports from my office more understandable to the public,” she said, “and answer some of the questions that the public may like to see addressed.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the legislation has been a topic of discussion among chiefs. He said most do not see a need for another review.

“There are already two reviews,” he said. “The local police department reviews what happened and why and what could have been done differently, and there is the review by the attorney general.”

One of Miller’s concerns involves the training and equipment of smaller departments.

“I am concerned about the small departments,” she said. “How do they handle these situations? Do they have the equipment and training?”

Aroostook County Sheriff James Madore, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association, agreed with Schwartz that two reviews of shooting incidents may be enough and acknowledged the issues of training and resources. He said all patrol deputies in Aroostook County are equipped with Taser devices and trained to use them where possible instead of deadly force.

“Not everybody uses the same [equipment] or has access to 12-gauge bean bag rounds or rubber bullets and such,” he said.

Both Schwartz and Madore acknowledged there is a difference in the training received by full-time police officers and that received by reserve officers. Full-time officers must complete an 18-week course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, but reserve officers need only 100 hours of training. There are about 3,500 police officers in the state, and about 1,500 are part-time.

Attorney General Mills said not every police department can be expected to have the latest equipment, experience and training to handle every situation that may occur. She said the state police do have a highly trained tactical team with highly skilled negotiators that any police department can call on for help.

“They have prevented dozens of fatalities and suicides,” she said.

Mills said that many of the concerns expressed by the sponsors were studied by a group established by former Attorney General Steven Rowe to look at the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers against individuals with mental illnesses. The report concluded that there is an increasing number of such situations and made several recommendations to try to reduce their incidence.

“Members of this task force recognize that none of these recommendations would be sufficient, alone or in combination, to eliminate the kinds of crisis situations represented by the cases reviewed,” the report stated. “We observe, however, that improvements can be made.”

The report found that there is a serious lack of mental health facilities and that police often do not have access to important mental health information in a particular situation.

The panel recommended that state laws be changed to allow access to information and that greater efforts be made with licensed mental health professionals to inform them that current law already allows disclosure of otherwise confidential information in a dangerous situation.

The bill likely will go to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, and its co-chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he is interested in the proposal and the recommendations such a board may propose.

The measure has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.

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