AG says police justified in use of deadly force, veteran who was shot disagrees

Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2012, at 7:21 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — A Belfast police officer was justified in using deadly force when he shot and seriously wounded a man in an armed confrontation last summer, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

But Benjamin Thompson, 26, of Swanville, a U.S. Marine veteran who was shot in the thigh and stomach the night of June 8 after getting out of his vehicle with a loaded shotgun in his hands, said he is not a violent person and had been trying to surrender as the officer fired at him.

“I can understand why he panicked. I had a weapon,” Thompson said Tuesday. “But I didn’t threaten anybody. He didn’t give me a chance to surrender.”

According to the Attorney General’s report, the confrontation began late that night when Searsport Police Officer Eric Marcel tried to stop a Jeep Cherokee with a loud exhaust pipe and a broken license plate light. Marcel reported via radio that the driver would not stop and was heading toward Belfast. Officers Daniel Fitzpatrick and Matthew Cook of the Belfast Police Department drove up Swan Lake Avenue in two police cruisers to the Smart Road intersection, where they stopped and waited for the Jeep.

The fast-moving Jeep approached them, Fitzpatrick reported, and made a sharp right turn onto the Smart Road. The two officers pursued it in their vehicles, watching as it swerved continually from side to side on the two-lane road. They followed the Jeep until it stopped at another Swan Lake Avenue intersection.

“Officer Fitzpatrick quickly got out of his cruiser and observed the driver of the Jeep, later identified as Benjamin Thompson, lunge from the vehicle with what Officer Fitzpatrick believed was a rifle,” the Maine Attorney General’s report stated.

As Thompson exited the Jeep, his vehicle rolled a few feet backward until it lodged against Fitzpatrick’s cruiser.

“Officer Fitzpatrick retreated to the space between his cruiser and its open door while ordering the driver to ‘put your hands up,’ and firing several shots until Mr. Thompson fell to the ground,” the report stated.

Cook was getting out of his own police car when he heard the sound of three or four gunshots, the report said. He covered Fitzpatrick while that officer secured Thompson’s loaded and cocked .20 gauge shotgun, according to the report. Then Cook and arriving Waldo County deputy sheriffs handcuffed the wounded man, “who was combative and implored the officers to kill him.”

Portions of the event were recorded on a video camera in Fitzpatrick’s cruiser, the report said.

The Attorney General’s office is not releasing the audio or video to the public, an official said Tuesday.

The video indicated that eight seconds passed between Thompson’s stopping at the intersection and Fitzpatrick’s firing four shots at him. Fitzpatrick and Thompson were 15 to 20 feet apart at the time of the shooting.

According to the Attorney General’s office, determining a reasonable use of force is based on all the circumstances involved and must be judged from the perspective of a “reasonable officer” on the scene.

Since 1990, police in Maine have used deadly force 94 times, according to statistics provided Tuesday by the Attorney General’s Office, which reviews every case of deadly force used by public safety officials. In 47 cases, the use of force resulted in death. In none of those cases was an incident of deadly force ruled not justified.

“To the best of my knowledge, they’ve all been found justified,” said Brenda Kielty, special assistant to the Attorney General. “Maybe there was a protocol or policy violation. That’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at the use of force, to determine whether it was justified under the law.”

The Belfast Police Department conducted an internal review of the shooting, and Fitzpatrick returned to regular duty in July.

“Fitzpatrick just acted appropriate to the training that he was given,” Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said Tuesday. “No one wants to ever have to shoot anybody. It’s a scary thing to think about. That’s why we take our training seriously.”

But Thompson disagrees largely with the official version of how events transpired that night.

“I’m not going to point all the fingers at the police department. I did do something wrong,” he said. “I can admit it when I do something wrong.”

He said that the trouble began when he and his then-wife got into a fight.

“I was angry with her. When I’m angry, I drive around. That’s what I did,” he said.

But he also had told her that he was going to harm himself and then grabbed a loaded weapon and threw it in the front seat of his vehicle.

Thompson, a Belfast native, said he served two tours of duty in Iraq before being honorably discharged in 2007. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has impulse control issues, he said.

“I’ve been trying to find ways to make things better. I go to counseling. I go to courses at the [Veterans Administration] in Augusta. I’ve done all kinds of stuff,” he said.

But that night, his impulses got the better of him, and his wife called police, he said. He believes they were looking for him, and that he was not stopped because of his exhaust or brake light.

When he got out of his Jeep, he didn’t intend to hurt anyone or himself.

“My whole plan was to get out and surrender that weapon,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was going to lead to them shooting me.”

Thompson also said he believes he may have been having a flashback.

“I wasn’t really sure what was going through my mind,” he said.

When the police pulled him over, they already had their guns drawn, he remembered. He believes that he could easily have been killed that night — but that when he asked officers to kill him, after he was shot, it was because of the intense pain. Taking a bullet through the stomach feels like “someone lighting you on fire from the inside out,” Thompson said.

After that, he wasn’t combative, he said, but instead fell facedown on the ground before being transported to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for treatment. He was in a coma for three days and in the hospital for two weeks. He said he is “pretty well healed up” from his injuries, although he continues to suffer from nerve damage in his leg and has some stomach issues.

After the shooting, Thompson was charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, the threatening display of a weapon, having a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants with one prior conviction and failure to stop for a police officer. He is awaiting trial on those charges.

Thompson also said he was never interviewed for the Attorney General’s report.

“I’m not saying I don’t deserve to be in some type of trouble. What I did — not all of it was right to do,” he said. “I can accept what I did wrong. But they had no right to shoot me.”

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