September 19, 2018
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No police shooting has been ruled unjustified. We need to ask whether they can be avoided.

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
The Maine State Police evidence response team works to survey the scene where 54-year-old Mark Ellis was killed after more than a 12 hour standoff with police at his home in Orrington in June 2017. It was one of 13 police shootings last year.

Two Maine State Police officers were justified in fatally shooting two people in a pickup truck that rammed a police car in Vassalboro in February 2017, the attorney general’s office concluded in a report released this week. Although the shooting of 18-year-old Ambroshia Fagre, a passenger in the truck, was accidental, the report concluded that the officers were justified in firing.

Also on Tuesday, the attorney general’s office released its finding that a Portland police officer was justified in fatally shooting a homeless man who had an air rifle last February.

Every time a Maine law enforcement officer uses deadly force to end a situation, the incident is reviewed by the attorney general’s office. It has never found that the use of deadly force was unjustified.

This 100 percent justification rate rightly raises a lot of eyebrows. Finally, Attorney General Janet Mills is taking steps to dig deeper into these deadly encounters. The intent isn’t to second guess police officers. Rather, a new group organized by Mills will look for causes and patterns among these shootings to look for ways that future such encounters may be resolved without force.

This is long overdue.

The attorney general’s office investigates every time Maine police use deadly force to determine whether officers were legally justified in taking a life. The findings are made public. In many instances, local law enforcement agencies involved in such incidents also do their own reviews, which generally are not available to the public.

In its more than 100 reviews of police use of deadly force since 1990, the attorney general’s office has never found that an officer was not justified in his actions. Some of those killed by police were brandishing guns and fired at officers, others wielded knives, some were unarmed.

The central test in the attorney general’s review is whether — in the heat of the moment — the police officer thought the person she or he shot was otherwise going to kill or hurt the officer or someone else. The review hangs in part on the standard of reasonableness — a legal test common in the American justice system that is based on what investigators believe a reasonable person would do.

Last year, there was a surge in police shootings in Maine. A total of 13 people where shot by law enforcement officials in 2017; nine of them died. The 13 shootings were well above the totals for 2016 and 2015 combined.

“The death of another person at the hands of a police officer should always be an absolute last resort, not something that happens on a monthly basis,” Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the Maine ACLU, said last year. “With shootings by police on the rise in Maine, we need to go beyond asking ourselves whether a shooting was legally justified in the technical sense of the term and start asking whether it could have been prevented.”

That’s precisely what the new task force is charged with doing.

The group will be lead by Matt Brown, a retired U.S. probation officer who now works in crisis intervention training. Members include representatives from various law enforcement agencies, the Maine Association of Police, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, a criminal prosecutor, a forensic examiner and Maine journalists, including Bangor Daily News criminal justice reporter Judy Harrison.

The new group will review past shootings and other incidents to understand what led up to the use of fatal or nearly-fatal force with an eye toward understanding how to prevent future death, injury or confrontations, Mills wrote in a letter announcing the panel.

Their first meeting was Tuesday.

We ask a lot of law enforcement officers. They are on the forefront of the opioid and mental health crises that plague Maine and the nation. They are called to end domestic disputes and to protect our school children.

If the new panel can help them avoid deadly confrontations, that is a benefit for all.

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