Police use of deadly force, thankfully, is rare. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers, less than 1 percent of public contacts with the police end with the use of force.
But, when such incidents do happen, they are traumatic to victims, their families and communities, and to the officers involved and their colleagues.
With this in mind, further minimizing such encounters should be a priority. One way to accomplish this would be to strengthen Maine’s current review process to identify when and how incidents can be de-escalated before they turn into a situation where the use of force is necessary. This is important as an increasing number of police encounters involve mental illness and substance abuse.
In Maine, the attorney general’s office investigates every time Maine police use deadly force to determine whether officers were legally justified in using that force, which typically means firing their gun. The findings were, until recently, made public. The office last posted a report online in September 2017. In many instances, local law enforcement agencies involved in such incidents also conduct 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 their actions. Some of those killed by police were brandishing guns and fired at officers, others wielded knives, and some were unarmed.
One of the incidents currently under review is the June 29 shooting of a Dixmont man who was having a mental health crisis. Before shooting Michael Grendell, who fired at police, Maine State Police blew up his home with a bomb carried by a robot. Grendell survived.
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.
This 100 percent justification rate rightly raises a lot of eyebrows. It also suggests the reviews are too narrow and don’t ask the right questions. The state’s new attorney general, Aaron Frey, and lawmakers should consider broadening the scope.
The intent of any such review is not to second guess police officers, who are on the forefront of the opioid and mental health crises that plague Maine and the nation, and are called to end domestic disputes and to protect our school children. Rather, the intent should be to seek ways to defuse dangerous situations before they become violent or deadly.
For example, it is unclear in the Grendell case whether any officers who had taken Crisis Intervention Team training were on the scene. Maine’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides the training to law enforcement and other first responders on how to handle situations that involve people with mental illnesses. It is different than other training that police, including crisis negotiators, receive.
New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, pledged reforms in his state the day after NJ.com reported its findings after reviewing all of the state’s use of force reports for the past five years.
The news site filed more than 500 public records requests and received more than 72,600 incident reports, which they turned into a searchable database. Its own review found that 10 percent of officers were responsible for 38 percent of all uses of force, black people were more than three times more likely to face force than white people and there was no state tracking of trends.
After a surge in police shootings here last year, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills convened a group to review the state’s past use of force incidents with an eye toward avoiding some of these confrontations in the future. Their work, which is nearing completion, should lay the groundwork for an ongoing review system that is more comprehensive and proactive.
Identifying ways to avoid deadly police confrontations will benefit us all.