Back in 2009, state Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, had what we thought was a good idea.
He proposed creating a state review board made up of police, mental health professionals and other members of the public that would examine every use of deadly force by police.
The panel would not just look at the split second a threatened officer had to decide whether to shoot, but at the totality of the circumstances and ask whether the situation could have been approached differently with a less dangerous outcome. The point would not be to second-guess officers or to assign blame. It would be to make sure that any lapses in training, equipment or tactics could be identified and shared so they might not be repeated. The point would not be to get officers in trouble, but to help them better avoid it.
The Legislature did not agree, and passed an alternative to Pilon’s bill that created a much less public review process. It required departments to form their own incident review teams and make reports available to the Legislature. Police in Maine have used deadly force 20 times since the new reporting system was in effect, resulting in 12 deaths. Ten of the written reports have been completed, but according to “Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill,” a report by a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram team, there is no evidence that any member of the Criminal Justice Committee has ever bothered to read the reports, let alone acted on their findings to prevent other cases.
The reporters found that more than half of the deaths resulting from these encounters involved people with mental illness, and that only a small number of the state’s police agencies have taken part in advanced crisis intervention training that could save lives.
This not the fault of the police officers, or their departments, many of which already conducted incident reviews with outside experts who evaluate policies and practices. But because there are significant differences in the kind of review and training agencies employ, not every step possible is being taken to avoid a tragedy.
This is the fault of the Legislature, which rejected a statewide review and passed this alternative back in 2009. But by failing to follow up, lawmakers are not providing oversight and transparency that would give the public the information it needs to have confidence in its police departments.
The reporters of “Deadly Force” found that this is a national problem, not just one for Maine. Most states conduct the same kind of narrow review of police-involved shootings that we do, and there is little public information available to compare and evaluate different practices.
The Legislature has failed to provide the oversight it promised.
If Maine lawmakers want to be leaders in protecting the public, they should consider revisiting a three-year-old idea and create a real citizen review panel that collects and shares information in a way that it could be used to save lives.