The Kennebunk police officer who fatally shot a woman while responding to a domestic-dispute call in March was justified in using deadly force, Attorney General William Schneider concluded in a report released Tuesday.
On the evening of March 27, Officer Joshua Morneau shot Katherine Paulson four times after she pulled a knife with an 8-inch blade from a holder and advanced toward him, according to the report.
Paulson, who was 39 and had a history of mental illness, died at the condominium in Nottingham Court that she shared with her mother, Carol.
The events unfolded quickly. No more than 19 seconds passed from the time police arrived until Morneau shot Paulson, according to the report.
Morneau and Sgt. Juliet Gilman were sent to the Paulsons’ home after Carol Paulson called 911 to report a domestic dispute. Carol Paulson said she was afraid for her well-being and wanted her daughter removed from the home, according to the report.
When the dispatcher asked Carol Paulson if she had been assaulted, she said, “No, not this evening,” the report says.
Carol Paulson met the officers at the door and invited them in. Gilman continued talking to the mother while Morneau met Katherine Paulson in the galley kitchen. According to the report, Paulson was leaning against a counter with folded arms and did not respond to Morneau’s greeting or his attempts to get her to talk.
Paulson turned slightly to her right, removed the knife from a holder on the counter and faced Morneau, the report says. He started moving backward, drew his gun and ordered her to drop the knife, but she continued to advance, according to the report.
Morneau moved backward until he could go no farther because of a physical obstruction, which the report does not describe, and continued to order Paulson to drop the knife.
Morneau fired, hitting Paulson with all four rounds, when she was about 4 feet from him and still advancing, the report says.
“It was reasonable for Officer Morneau to believe that deadly force was imminently threatened against him, Sgt. Gilman and Ms. Paulson’s mother,” the report concludes. “In addition, it was reasonable for Officer Morneau to believe that it was necessary for him to use deadly force to protect himself and the others from the imminent threat of deadly force posed against them by Ms. Paulson’s actions.”
The Attorney General’s Office investigates all uses of deadly force by police in Maine. The investigations aim to determine whether self-defense or the defense of others rules out criminal prosecution. They do not address issues such as whether the use of deadly force could have been avoided or whether an officer should be disciplined.
Morneau declined to comment on the report. He directed questions to Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, the union that represents Morneau. Gaspar did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
“We are satisfied with the attorney general’s determination regarding this matter and we’ll follow up with our own internal investigation,” said Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee.
The department’s investigation will determine whether its policies and procedures were followed. Bean Burpee said the findings will likely be released late this week or next week.
Morneau did have a Taser at the time of the shooting. Kennebunk officers are equipped with those and other non-lethal options, like pepper spray and batons. When in uniform, they are required to wear bulletproof vests, which Bean Burpee said do not offer protection from knives.
Bean Burpee noted that if an officer is confronted with deadly force, state law allows him or her to use the same or greater force in response. “He is by no means required to grab his Taser and disarm her,” he said.
Paulson’s estate, represented by her mother and a cousin, Greg Bogojavlensky, has retained a law firm to investigate the shooting. The firm has served a notice of claim to the town, which allows the estate to sue in the future.
Benjamin Gideon, of the firm Berman & Simmons, said the report raises red flags. He questioned why Morneau shot Paulson four times and why he did not learn more about the context of the situation before “confronting” her in the kitchen.
“Police officers are here to protect and serve – not to shoot first and ask questions later,” Gideon said. “And if you look at the report, that’s what appears to have happened.”
Information about Paulson’s struggle with mental illness emerged after her death.
Her father, James Paulson of Washington state, has said she was unable to finish her schooling or work because of anxiety.
In 2000, she was convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery on a police officer, and disorderly conduct after an incident with police in Wenham, Mass. According to police records, she tried to assault an off-duty officer with an aluminum flashlight and threatened to kill the officers who arrived later. She was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation after her arrest.
In 1997, she was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a police officer after refusing to be patted down outside a nightclub by a female security guard. The charges were later dismissed.
The investigation by Schneider’s office showed that police in Hamilton, Mass., had contact with Paulson at least 18 times while she lived there. Most of the interactions ended with Paulson being put in protective custody after she displayed symptoms of mental illness and acted combatively toward police.
Kennebunk police had assisted during medical calls for Carol Paulson but had no contact with her daughter before the night of the shooting.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org