WESTBROOK - In the wake of every police-involved shooting we hear from the distraught family of the person shot, from the soon-to-be plaintiff’s lawyer and from a skeptical press.
Law enforcement is almost always without a voice in the wake of these police involved shootings.
I am afraid this four-part series (“Deadly Force: Police and the mentally ill” Dec. 9-12) will increase the tendency to infer wrongdoing in the wake of every shooting.
I agree that crisis intervention training for the police is good. I agree that we need to expand and fund more mental health services in this country. I agree that responding officers when possible should properly assess the threat; maintain tactical advantage; and thereby preserve use of force options.
However, I also believe the law supports the justification of most police-involved shootings. What I would like to see is citizens embracing a nonrebuttable presumption that a menacing noncompliant person advancing on a police officer or innocent civilian with a knife or a gun should be shot regardless of their mental state, their veteran status or their history as a Nobel laureate!
In 2011 more than 54,000 police officers were assaulted in the United States.
We know that this number is vastly under-reported because more than 2,400 law enforcement agencies representing a population of more than 14 million people do not report assault data to the FBI.
Of those 54,000 assaults that are reported each year, more than 11,000 involve an assault on an officer with a deadly weapon including a gun or a knife. The police kill an average of 350 people a year in the United States, even though killing the other 10,650 people who were wielding a gun or knife would have been justifiable homicide.
These numbers simply do not reflect out-of-control law enforcement violence. These numbers tell me that we are creating a generation of conflicted combatants, police officers who often wait too long to act in the face of danger.
Staff writer Tux Turkel and a Dec. 9 editorial reported that 24 out of 57 police involved shootings in Maine since 2000 involved people experiencing a mental health crisis. The editorial further suggests that too many of these encounters end with force.
I ask you to assume the role of a police officer’s mother, father, sibling or child knowing that your police officer relative may have just been called to a scene, by a citizen who was afraid for his life, and that officer or someone else is now being threatened with a gun or a knife.
We expect that officer, our relative, to make a split second decision about the intentions of this knife or gun wielding person.
Are they homicidal or suicidal?
Is the person suffering from one of more than 300 psychiatric disorders?
Is the person hearing impaired, foreign speaking, suffering alcohol or drug induced delirium, dementia, diabetes or some other medical emergency?
Does this person have an autism spectrum disorder or an intellectual disability?
Is it reasonable that your police officer relative, or some other innocent person, could die during that analysis?
According to “mental health policy.org” and other sources, more than 1,000 people are killed in the United States by people suffering “severe mental illness,” another number which I suspect is under reported. This is not a blanket indictment of all people with a mental illness, it is simply an accurate reflection of risk.
A fair minded person should consider how many lives police officers save every year in circumstances that would have justified them taking a life. I can tell you from firsthand experience the answer is hundreds, right here in Maine, and people should know about all of those cases too!
Your police officers are well trained. The do not come to work every day hoping for conflict and confrontation or a chance to use deadly force, they seek to avoid it at all costs.
But when they are faced with a gun or a knife they should heed not the little voice of doubt in the back of their minds.
They should remember the words of our federal courts:”The Constitution simply does not require police (officers) to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm!” (99 F.3rd 640 (1996)
“Detached reflection cannot be demanded (of police officers) in the presence of an uplifted knife!” (128 S.Ct. 2783 (1921)
As I think about the complexities of being a police officer these days and hear about a fatal police-involved shooting, my heart goes out to the person who lost their life and their family.
However, I reserve my strongest empathy for the persons who willingly placed themselves in that complex and dangerous situation on behalf of all of us, and I recall another quote from two great authors (Hall and Patrick) who remind us: “Law enforcement officers often knowingly choose to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the endangered — they are not required by the law to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the dangerous!”
William Baker is a former Westbrook police chief with 37 years in law enforcement.