Moments before a Rumford police officer shot a reportedly suicidal woman behind her apartment building March 18, he and another officer tried unsuccessfully to use their Tasers, the town’s police chief confirmed Friday.
Sgt. Tracey Higley shot Jessica Byrn-Francisco twice as she charged toward him wielding a knife, police said. Another officer, Patrolman Brad Gallant, also was positioned near Higley in the building’s small, snow-covered backyard.
Police released few specifics about the confrontation because the Maine Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation, as required under state law, into the use of deadly force to determine if it was justified. Several of the 25-year-old woman’s friends and family members, as well as others in the community, questioned why Higley or Gallant didn’t use the non-lethal option of a Taser.
Police Chief Stacy Carter said they tried.
“That is a question that has come up numerous times from citizens,” Carter said. “The Taser was used. Both officers had tried using it and each time it was ineffective.”
The standard Taser used by police fires two barbs connected to the handle by wires. The device then delivers an intense electrical charge, which incapacitates a person by preventing the muscles from receiving the electrical impulses needed to work.
But the devices don’t work if both barbs don’t penetrate clothing and lodge in the person’s skin.
That is a major reason why police are taught not to rely on Tasers when confronted with deadly force. Instead, they are taught to use their service weapon, fire for the central mass of the person posing the threat, and shoot until the threat is eliminated.
Officers are trained that relying on a Taser or shooting at someone’s leg or elsewhere on the body is much less likely to be effective and could leave an officer in serious danger. The training also says that someone armed with a knife can reach a person as far away as 21 feet before the person has time to recognize the threat, pull a gun and fire.
Police said they were called to Byrn-Francisco’s first-floor apartment on Maine Street for a report that she was suicidal. She was not in her apartment, but they found her behind the building.
Police said they had received numerous calls in the previous few weeks about Byrn-Francisco threatening to kill herself.
Officers confronted her in the backyard and ordered her to put down the knife.
Higley backed up as far as he could before the yard started sloping downward steeply, Carter said. The day after the shooting, a bright red stain showed where Byrn-Francisco collapsed toward the rear of the yard.
John Moore, a friend of Byrn-Francisco, witnessed the confrontation immediately before the shooting and afterward, but not at the point when the shots were fired. He said he saw an officer point his gun at Byrn-Francisco with his Taser on his hip, ordering her to “put the knife down,” but then Moore was ordered inside. A brief period passed, long enough for him to finish a cup of coffee, he said, and then he heard gunshots. He looked out again and saw Byrn-Francisco lying in the snow with the officer standing over her.
Jon Goodman, an attorney for the Maine Association of Police who represents Higley, said the shooting is an unfortunate outcome.
“The officers feel very bad for the woman and for the family and they wish it didn’t have to go that way,” Goodman said.
Reached in the days after the shooting, Byrn-Francisco’s father, Joseph Byrn, was one of those questioning why police, as far as he knew, hadn’t used a Taser.
“I’m still bewildered and confused about why they had to use deadly force instead of (a) Taser, … mace, beanbags, anything,” he said, referring to other less-than-lethal alternatives to a firearm.
Byrn said he and his daughter, who was raised in New Jersey until she moved to Maine when she was 13, talk regularly but don’t see each other often. He said his mother and sister are her closest family in Maine.
“I knew Jess had a little depression in her, but it had came and gone, fluctuations with the medications. The only problems I knew she had was them messing with her medications,” Byrn said. “I couldn’t see Jessica going out and chasing officers with the knife. … I’m trying to find out exactly what the true story is, what really happened.”
Byrn-Francisco was listed in good condition earlier this week at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, but as of Friday night was no longer a patient at the hospital.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: