Hundreds of protesters gathered at Bangor International airport to protest racism and police brutality and the president's visit during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar / BDN

The Bangor and Lewiston police departments, as well as the Maine State Police, do not explicitly require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers, while rules in Portland require officers there to intervene.

The Bangor Police Department and state police do not specifically restrict the use of chokeholds or neck restraints, while the Portland Police Department prohibits those tactics “unless deadly force is justified,” according to its policy on officers’ use of force. The Lewiston Police Department forbids the use of neck restraints.

Meanwhile, Bangor and Lewiston officers and state police troopers are largely prohibited from firing at moving vehicles, which carries a high risk of ricochet, though there are exceptions to that rule. The Portland Police Department does not expressly forbid the practice.

Nationwide, including in Maine, protests continue to draw scrutiny to how police use force against the public, especially people of color. The Bangor Daily News requested and reviewed the use-of-force policies for Maine’s four largest police departments and found that, while they mostly follow similar rules, they differ in some key ways.

“Policies are rarely static. It is incumbent on all of us to continue to improve and advance our procedures. I am always eager to learn of best practice procedures in use in other departments,” said Bangor police Chief Mark Hathaway.

The law broadly allows officers to use their judgment to deem when it’s necessary to use force in the face of resistance, which is why police departments then craft policies that more specifically define what officers are and aren’t allowed to do in various scenarios.

Some departments said they will revisit or are open to revisiting those differences in light of recent events, although critics warn that it will take more than simply amending written policies to address their core concerns over how police do their jobs.

“Absolutely police need to look at those policies with a closer eye,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “But if we just look at policies and practices, we are missing a larger problem with policing in America. If that’s where the conversation ends, we haven’t gotten anywhere.”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck while he begged for air, U.S. House Democrats have proposed more universal rules that prohibit chokeholds and other neck-pressure tactics. In Maine, a lawmaker overseeing criminal justice policy called for Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature to “revise and strengthen” use of force policies.

In a recent OpEd, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said police should follow model policies that require “specific de-escalation practices and verbal warnings,” prohibit strangleholds and require “intervention by bystanding officers to stop peers from using excessive force.”

Limited research has shown that departments with more rules restricting police use of force tend to have lower rates of police-involved killings. The research can’t say whether that correlation speaks to the policies themselves or the broader culture and leadership of the police department.

At least one police department — the Maine State Police, with more than 300 officers — is already reviewing its use-of-force policies in light of recent events. While chokeholds may be used in situations that would require police to use deadly force, they are “not an approved technique to be used in a non-deadly force situation,” said Maine State Police Col. John Cote.

However, state police policy does not explicitly explain this, so “we are currently evaluating our relevant policies and making recommendations to provide clarity on this issue” and several others, he said.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains all Maine police and corrections officers and oversees their certifications, doesn’t teach cadets to use chokeholds — only how to defend against them, said Rick Desjardins, the academy’s acting director.

“The only permissible time to engage the head, or the neck area, would be if an officer is struggling for life (or to protect the life of a third-person),” summed up Hathaway, the Bangor chief, in an email.

Officers equipped with face shields and batons lined up at the edge of the Bangor Police Department parking lot on June 1. [Natalie Williams | BDN]

Law enforcement leaders emphasized that using physical force, chemical agents, Tasers, smoke grenades, batons or a gun are only considered when other practices are ineffective at stopping people from committing a crime or hurting others, including officers. All of their policies reflect this point.

“We always attempt to achieve compliance through conversation, de-escalation or passive control,” Hathaway said. Similarly, the Lewiston Police Department has several in-house instructors on use of force who train officers to try to resolve issues verbally, said Lewiston police Chief Brian O’Malley.

While officers may have an ethical duty to intervene if other officers use excessive force, that duty is not directly stated in Bangor, Lewiston or state police policies, as it is in Portland’s policy. Portland’s rule states, “An officer has a duty to intervene, at the earliest, safe opportunity to prevent or stop the use of unreasonable force by another officer. The incident must be immediately reported to a supervisor.”

While the Bangor Police Department currently does not have a “duty to intervene policy,” it is creating one that it will soon present to the city solicitor’s office for review, Hathaway said.

In addition, rules followed by Bangor and Lewiston — which both have more than 80 full-time officers — and the state police don’t explicitly say that officers should, when possible, tell members of the public when they’re about to shoot them. While the policies emphasize that police should give warnings and tell people to drop their weapons or not move, they don’t require officers to say what will happen if they don’t follow instructions.

Portland, which has 150 full-time officers, is the only place that spells it out. “If feasible, the officer must give a warning immediately prior to the use of deadly force, i.e. ‘stop or I’ll shoot’ and, if possible, multiple times. This warning should not be given if the officer believes that it would place the officer or others in jeopardy,” according to Portland’s policy.

“Officers are repeatedly trained to ‘announce and instruct’ when engaging a person with a weapon,” Hathaway said, and there are situations where a warning would not be prudent, such as when an officer arrives on scene to find someone already acting violently.

Deadly confrontations involving Maine police often escalate quickly, according to a commission that studied the police killings of 10 Maine people during 2016 and 2017. In four of the cases, police used deadly force within the first minute of the confrontation. In eight of the 10 cases, the deceased person had been “living with mental health challenges,” according to the commission’s final report.

As police emphasized, department policies are but one way of understanding the rules that police follow. The law, their code of ethics and their training all influence their actions. But policies are important because they provide a public explanation of how departments view their policing and direct officers how to behave.

They are not, however, enough to meaningfully stop patterns of police behavior that have disproportionately harmed certain communities, particularly those of color, said Beyea, with the ACLU of Maine.

“The Minneapolis Police Department had tried lots of reforms — trainings on implicit bias, crisis intervention, community dialogues, pretty strict use-of-force standards, body cameras — and that didn’t stop the police killing of George Floyd, notably while other officers watched on,” Beyea said.

The unequal treatment of black Americans by police is “more than a policy problem; it’s a culture problem,” she said.

“It’s why it’s important to fundamentally reimagine what policing looks like in Maine and America,” she said, starting with shifting money away from police departments to other public services such as housing and public health.

Around 1,000 anti-racism protestors make their way through Augusta on June 7, 2020. It was the first protest in the capital city since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man, who died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. [Troy R. Bennett | BDN]

It is difficult to estimate the frequency with which police use justified or excessive force, though the Maine attorney general’s office has never found a police officer to have unjustly killed a civilian. It has published 98 case reviews on its website since 2003.

When officers are accused of using excessive force, their police chief is legally required to report it to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy because it could jeopardize their law enforcement certification.

Between 2008 and 2019, 14 people — four police officers and 10 correctional officers — were alleged to have used excessive force. Only three lost their certification, according to a BDN review of cases.

“It really boils down to the severity. Was it an aggravated assault? Was it a violation of the policy?” said Desjardins, with the academy. “There’s a lot of different variations of excessive use of force that has to be fleshed out in the process.”

Read the use-of-force policies here:

Bangor Police Department

Lewiston Police Department

Maine State Police

Portland Police Department policy 1 and policy 2

Watch: Police departments speak on recent Portland protests, June 3

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.