For years, the Maine attorney general’s office has reviewed incidents when law enforcement officers have used deadly force. The purpose of these reviews is to determine whether the use of force was justified. The office has always found that it was.
In 2017, for the first time, the office convened a group to look at these incidents to learn if and how such incidents, which are often deadly, could be avoided in the future.
Many of their conclusions are unsurprising — for example, the state’s inadequate mental health system requires police officers to intervene in crisis situations. Still, the group’s report offers an important blueprint for lawmakers and law enforcement personnel as they seek to minimize encounters that require the use of deadly force.
There are two important things to know. First, police use of deadly force, thankfully, is rare. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 1 percent of public contacts with the police across the country end with the use of force. Last year, there were only five such incidents in Maine, after an unusually high 12 in 2017.
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.
Second, while long standoffs capture the attention of the media and public, many use of force incidents are over in about a minute. In nearly half of the 10 incidents reviewed by the panel, officers used deadly force within 60 seconds, giving law enforcement officers very little time to assess the situation and determine how best to diffuse it.
The Maine task force reviewed 10 cases in which police used deadly force between 2015 and 2016. Here’s what it found: “The typical individual involved was a male in possession of a deadly weapon, with a criminal history, who was suffering symptoms of depression, often to the extent that they were exhibiting suicidal ideation. In addition, most individuals had alcohol or drugs in their system.”
Then there is this, perhaps the most important statement in the report: “Despite the substantial number of individuals living with mental health challenges, or using alcohol or drugs, it was notable that very few had, or were receiving, any formal treatment to help manage those issues.”
Accessing mental health care can be difficult. Beyond the stigma, there are too few mental health providers and cost is a barrier to many.
A recent analysis by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service and the Maine Health Access Foundation found that Mainers with mental health conditions were more likely than the general population to have low incomes and low educational attainment, and to be on public insurance or have no insurance at all. For example, among those with probable depression, 31 percent are part of households with income below $15,000 per year. Compare that to people without probable depression, only 9 percent of whom are part of households with annual incomes below $15,000. A quarter of those with probable depression were covered by the state’s Medicaid program, known as MaineCare, compared with 9 percent of those without probable depression.
While removing financial and other barriers to treatment must be a focus of lawmakers, the task force did recommend helpful steps for law enforcement such as working more closely with families with a member who is living with mental illness or substance abuse disorder to ensure they are aware of community resources. The task force’s report also recommends more widespread adoption of the practice of teaming law enforcement with crisis intervention and substance abuse and mental health personnel, and suggests working to expand such a model to more rural areas.
The panel convened by the attorney general’s office also recommended more training for dispatchers on working with mental health, substance use, developmental disabilities, other vulnerable populations and crisis response. This is especially important because dispatchers are often the first point of contact when a crisis develops. They not only need information to best direct individuals to community resources, if appropriate, they also need to assess risk to help law enforcement best respond to such situations.
The report makes clear we ask law enforcement officers to take on herculean tasks. They are on the frontlines 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. Building more accessible mental health and substance use treatment systems is a priority, but so is equipping officers and dispatchers with the tools to defuse dangerous situations before they become violent or deadly.