May 23, 2018
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Police and Deadly Force

Few jobs come with the life-and-death pressures of law enforcement. When a Maine law enforcement officer discharges his or her gun to subdue someone, it is likely a decision that will haunt the officer with doubts and second-guesses for years to come. But because an officer’s decision to use a weapon has such serious consequences, it ought to be subject to a high level of scrutiny.

That scrutiny is not happening. A bill proposed by Rep. Don Pilon, D-Saco, would create more review of police use of deadly force.

If lawmakers needed a reminder of the urgency of this measure, it came March 24, when police officers in Biddeford shot a suicidal woman dead after she allegedly brandished a BB pellet handgun.

Currently, if an officer working for a municipal police department or county sheriff’s department shoots at someone in the line of duty, the local agency investigates, and the state Attorney General’s Office reviews the case to determine whether or not the officer acted within the limits of the law. In essence, law enforcement officers are reviewing the decisions of law enforcement officers. While those reviews are probably as objective as possible and certainly rely on the expertise of those who know what it’s like to be on the front lines of law enforcement, a better system is needed.

Rep. Pilon’s bill would create an independent panel, whose members would be appointed by the governor, to review the use of deadly force. If recent history is any guide, such a panel would be busy. From 1998 to 2008, Maine law enforcement officers shot at 54 suspects and killed 26.

The panel would pursue answers to a question that is broader than whether or not the officer was justified in using a weapon. That broader question is: How might the situation have been avoided? If such a panel is created, it should be empowered to suggest procedures that might have been used to avoid putting the officer in that difficult position of having to defend himself or protect the public by using deadly force. Those procedures might include relying more on nonlaw enforcement professionals — such as counselors and mental health experts — in standoff and hostage situations. The panel also might suggest training that the state should mandate for all departments and the use of nondeadly force equipment such as Taser devices and rubber bullets.

The executive directors of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association said most chiefs do not see the reason for another review. They should instead welcome further scrutiny, even if it is by those outside of law enforcement, if only because it would help the public better understand the difficult jobs police officers face.

Under the current system, a Maine police officer using deadly force is very unlikely to be found negligible or even to have used poor judgment. That suggests the need for a tougher standard. A panel that includes lay citizens and perhaps lawyers and mental health professionals, along with retired law enforcement officers, would only improve Maine’s law enforcement agencies.

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