December 11, 2012

Lives at stake, but inaction stalls chance to save them

A new system in Maine evaluates deadly force incidents, but little is done to share the findings, and few lawmakers actually read the reports.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Investigators working with the Maine Attorney General's Office use lasers to map the path of bullets fired in the police shooting of Barbara Stewart of Biddeford on March 24, 2009. Photo is from the AG's investigative case file on the shooting.

Courtesy of Maine Attorney General's Office

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The team recommended that "A risk assessment form or visor card should be implemented within the agency to provide troopers with the decision-making process currently afforded troopers for requesting the Tactical Team." (This card would use numbers that correspond to varying levels of response, and recommend when a supervisor should be notified.)

The team recommended that supervisors should take action: "This issue will be addressed at the next Command Officer's meeting."

EFFECTIVENESS OF REPORTS UNCLEAR

Brian MacMaster, the longtime chief investigator at the Attorney General's Office, prepared the status report on the review team process for the legislative committee. He noted the limited mandate of the legislative resolve: Provide an update, the number of teams convened and the number of reports generated. He also noted that the reports are available to the public, upon request to the respective law enforcement agency.

MacMaster, who also chairs the trustees board of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, was asked if board members read the reports, or if he thought there would be value in posting them on the academy's website.

MacMaster didn't directly answer those questions. He responded that the status report, like any requested by the Legislature, only contains the information required by law or resolve. He added that some agencies will do a more complete job than others, and that the only way to determine the value of the process is to get copies of the reports and read them.

"This process is still quite new," MacMaster said. "Personally, I think it's working, if for no other reason than it compels an agency to do a self review/analysis and brings in others outside the agency into the process, particularly citizens."

REVIEW MAY HOLD USEFUL LESSONS

A team review is set to be released soon on a shooting incident that may hold lessons for Maine police, to the extent that they become aware of the findings.

In November 2011, state police Trooper Jon Brown shot and killed Michael Curtis during a confrontation in Dover-Foxcroft. It was a confusing scene when law enforcement personnel tracked down Curtis, who was drunk and had just shot a man at a nearby nursing home.

When Brown arrived, he was unaware that the local sheriff had been negotiating with Curtis, a firefighter who had a portable radio, and that Curtis was asking for help. The sheriff then walked toward Curtis, and when the sheriff ignored Brown's warnings to get away, the trooper shot Curtis, who was holding a handgun.

In July, the Attorney General's Office found the shooting legally justified, because Brown had reason to believe that the sheriff was being threatened with deadly force.

Shortly after, Curtis' widow filed a notice of claim for wrongful death. It charges that Curtis was actually unarmed, was not fleeing and didn't pose a risk to Brown or anyone else.

It also charged: "Trooper Brown was not properly trained or supervised in a manner to prevent the unlawful use of deadly force."

DO POLICE NEED BETTER TRAINING?

Brown's training clearly was an issue, according to information gathered by the newspaper.

Many details of how the state police handled Brown's case are confidential, but a  "final agency action" letter from Col. Robert Williams, chief of the state police, and Brown, provides an outline.

The one-page letter notes that Brown violated department policies. These policies involve use of force, establishing command and control, and information gathering.

Brown was put on unpaid leave for 30 days last summer. He also was reassigned to the force's commercial vehicle division. He then was required to complete "remedial training" in areas including use of force and "responding to a barricaded subject," according to the letter from Williams.

The state police policy manual contains wording regarding the use of deadly force. It states, in part: "An officer is to use only that degree of physical force that the officer reasonably and actually believes is necessary to effectively bring a situation under control while protecting the officer and/or any other person."

It remains to be seen if the Curtis review - which provides details on the highly publicized shooting - will generate more interest than previous reports.

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