Deadly Force, Weak Scrutiny

Posted July 14, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

It’s a showdown no law enforcement officer relishes. A man is emotionally distraught, or angry, or drunk and he has a gun. Officers try to talk him into dropping his weapon and surrendering, but he refuses. And then, at a critical moment, the man makes threatening gestures with the gun, or fires it. Officers must decide — sometimes in a millisecond — whether to shoot or not shoot. If the decision is made to shoot and the suspect is killed, that moment will haunt the officer the rest of his or her life.

Second-guessing that decision rankles those who wear the uniform. But reviewing the circumstances each time an officer shoots and kills a suspect, with an eye to learning from the incident to reduce the likelihood of another fatal shooting, is necessary. And a review system that rarely results in fault being found in such shootings is not achieving any improvement.

The most recent fatal shooting at the hands of law enforcement officers came last week when game wardens and a VA officer shot a man who reportedly brandished a weapon. Officers use deadly force when they conclude someone is an imminent threat to the lives of officers or other people, and that the use of deadly force is the only option to remove that threat. One or more law enforcement officers will review the case, as will the state Attorney General’s office, to determine whether the right decision was made.

While no conclusions can be made about this most recent case, the track record of the review process suggests a bad trend. In the previous 44 times in which someone was fatally shot by a law enforcement officer, reviews found the killings justified in all 44 incidents. Last year, Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, proposed a bill that would have the governor appoint a standing panel to review such cases. The panel would have included residents without law enforcement ties, as well as those with such experience. It was a good idea that was whittled down to a nearly meaningless version in which the chief officer of the agency that used deadly force chooses panel members.

Furthermore, the deliberations of such panels are closed to the public. Some of the issues surrounding the case would likely need to remain private, but more scrutiny by outside sources could add more credibility to the process.

Beyond determining whether the officer acted justifiably, the larger question of how such deaths could be avoided must be addressed. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee should take up this question and examine how the Maine Criminal Justice Academy trains officers for potentially deadly standoffs. The state police and local law enforcement agencies have been wise to create tactical teams to respond to emergencies. Perhaps they also should train and prepare officers who can go to the scene or be available by telephone to suggest ways to handle situations without using deadly force.

Clearly, law enforcement agencies must have the use of deadly force available as an option at all times during the discharge of their dangerous duties. But more training and resources could limit its use.

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