September 23, 2018
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What to learn from Dixmont standoff and house explosion

Caitlin Rogers | BDN
Caitlin Rogers | BDN
Michael Grendell's property in Dixmont is pictured after community members cleaned up the debris created when Maine State Police destroyed the home with an explosive to end a standoff June 29.

Lee Bell was hesitant to call police when his friend and neighbor had an apparently worsening mental health crisis earlier this summer. He was afraid they would shoot Michael Grendell.

His fears were well founded. After a standoff, police did shoot Grendell. But first they blew up his home with a bomb carried by a robot.

It was likely the first time police used a lethally armed robot against a civilian in Maine. Their use nationally is unusual, too.

The June 29 explosion in Dixmont highlights the confluence of two concerning trends: the growing frequency with which law enforcement officers are called upon to help people in the midst of mental health crises and the growing militarization of police forces.

The Dixmont standoff, during which Grendell shot at officers, as with any incident involving the use of lethal force in Maine, will be investigated by the Attorney General’s Office. The office makes a determination as to whether the use of lethal force was justified. It has always found this to be the case.

More important questions need to be asked, with a particular focus on whether anything could have been done differently to de-escalate the situation. The goal would not be to place blame but to learn how best in the future to preserve life and property.

Police reports show that multiple neighbors and family members told police they thought Grendell was experiencing a medical or mental health problem. He had started to act strangely in the last few months: He went out in the rain to paint his mailbox, for instance, and talked nonsense about zombies. He lost 75 pounds and developed a large number of sores on his body.

His neighbor and close friend Bell called police the day after Grendell shot at him. They’d had an out-of-character confrontation over a package that had arrived in the mail. In police reports, Bell said he called police because he wanted his friend to get help.

Police did not say whether they consulted with a medical or mental health professional before going to his house and, over a loudspeaker, telling Grendell to come out with his hands up. Grendell did come out, but went back into the house after saying he was OK. Police wouldn’t say whether any officers who had taken Crisis Intervention Team training were present during the nearly 16-hour-long standoff.

Police played a recorded message from Jacob Irish, Lee Bell’s son and Grendell’s godson, in which he asked Grendell to come out so police could help him. Grendell stayed in the two-story home.

Police threw weighted balls against his house. Then they drove a robot over to a window and used a pole to smash it. It was then that Grendell began to shoot at their armored vehicle and at officers stationed around the perimeter of the property.

Eventually, police deployed a robot with an explosive and detonated it, bringing down the house.

Two months later, Grendell remains in the hospital.

These cases are always more difficult in the present than with the benefit of hindsight, and no one wants a police officer to be hurt or worse.

However, the scenario is worth reflecting on. What is an appropriate amount of force to use on someone with an apparent mental illness? If someone is having delusions, is a police presence likely to make them worse? Were there alternatives to blowing up his home? Would there have been harm in waiting longer?

One question in particular that needs to be discussed in the Dixmont case is this: Does Maine want police to be able to detonate explosives on civilians?

The Maine State Police said using the explosives was a last-resort decision that only came after de-escalation attempts failed. But in the weeks following the explosion, police did not explain what, exactly, they did to de-escalate the situation.

There needs to be a process by which people can have an honest discussion, not just about the Dixmont case but each time police officers use lethal force. The attorney general’s review doesn’t include an analysis of whether the use of force could have been prevented, what went well or what could have been done differently.

No one thinks police officers want to kill or seriously injure someone, particularly someone with a mental illness. That’s why having look-backs on major police events could be beneficial to both police and the public. Police officers, like people in any profession, can always learn from the past. And the public could benefit from having more reasons to trust law enforcement.

After all, police work for the public, and without the public’s support their jobs become even more difficult. We would welcome increased understanding on both sides.

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