November 08, 2019
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Task force urges better mental health care in Maine police shootings probe

Dreamstime | TNS
Dreamstime | TNS

A state task force that has been reviewing the use of deadly force by Maine police officers following an uptick in fatal police shootings in 2017 has released a set of recommendations for decreasing or preventing the types of incidents that lead to those encounters.

The task force, which was convened by Gov. Janet Mills late in 2017 when she was still the state’s attorney general, made a variety of recommendations for boosting the training and support that law enforcement officers, emergency dispatchers and other workers receive for helping people with mental health problems.

[Maine attorney general assembles task force to probe increase in police shootings]

In the report released Monday by Mills’ successor, Attorney General Aaron Frey, the task force urged state officials to adopt stricter penalties for people with a history of domestic violence who violate their protection orders and conditions of release.

The task force also noted that the state’s police officers are more frequently responding to cases that involve substance use, mental health problems and domestic violence.

After reviewing 10 cases in which police used deadly force between 2015 and 2016, the group included numerous findings about the people involved in those shootings and highlighted several common factors. The report did not specify whether “involved individuals” were those who had been shot by police.

Seven of them, for example, had recently experienced what the group defined as a “recent loss,” such as the end of a romantic relationship or the loss of custody of a child.

Nine of the individuals were men.

Eight were determined to have mental health challenges, seven had expressed suicidal thoughts during or prior to the encounter, seven had alcohol or drugs in their system during the encounter and six had previously been involved in incidents related to domestic violence.

Almost half of the shootings happened within a minute of the officer arriving on the scene. Officers tried to use verbal de-escalation in four of the cases, while the remaining six happened too rapidly for that to be an option, according to the report.

The report also noted that there are many occasions when Maine police officers respond to people in crisis and resolve the situation peacefully.

Mills convened the 12-person task force in December 2017 after the state saw a year-over-year doubling in the number of cases in which police used deadly force. Police used deadly force on six occasions in 2016 and in 12 cases in 2017, according to the attorney general’s office.

But that uptick did not last and is not part of a long-term trend. Maine law enforcement used deadly force just five times last year, according to the data from the attorney general’s office.

Over the past decade, that number has mostly hovered between four and nine. The two exceptions were 11 in 2014 and 12 in 2017.

[How Maine police shootings are investigated]

When Mills convened the task force, she said the objective was not to determine whether the shootings were legally justified — as the Maine attorney general’s office does following all uses of deadly force by officers — but to look at the circumstances that led to them and try to find ways to minimize those circumstances.

Frey echoed that sentiment in announcing the report’s findings Monday.

“The more we understand the circumstances which lead to the use of deadly force, the more we can do to prevent,” Frey said. “I will work with all relevant organizations to review the recommendations made by the task force and will assist with implementing them.”

The task force included 12 people from a range of law enforcement, legislative, advocacy and other backgrounds, who met four times between March and December of 2018.

Among the members were Chief Leonard Macdaid of the Newport Police Department, Cmdr. Darrell Crandall of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Judy Harrison, a criminal justice reporter for the Bangor Daily News, was also a part of the task force.

The group’s recommendations included expanding the availability of crisis intervention services in Maine, training more first responders to provide those services, embedding more crisis workers into police departments and creating more intensive mental health treatment programs for people at risk of harming themselves or others.

Members urged the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to regularly review its training related to mental illness, substance use, developmental disabilities and other vulnerable populations.

The group also recommended that repeated violations of protection orders be elevated to a felony under Maine law.

There is a chance that state lawmakers could make progress on that particular recommendation this year, according to Stark of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Last year, the House and Senate unanimously passed a bill, LD 524, that would have made the third violation of a protection from abuse order a felony, but the measure died due to a lack of funding. This year, the Legislature will again consider a bill that would make that change, Stark said.

When someone repeatedly violates a protection order, it suggests a high risk that he could threaten both domestic partners and any police officers who respond to a report of domestic violence, Stark said.

“These are people whose pattern of behavior indicates that they’re a really dangerous person,” Stark said.



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