December 30, 2012

Newspaper series spurs call to action

State lawmakers and members of Congress say it showed a need for more data and better training.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

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In the meantime, Alfond said, he was glad to learn from the series that Maine police departments have a training resource close to home. The Justice Department has identified the Portland Police Department as one of six agencies in the nation that are willing to share their crisis intervention strategies with other departments.

"I hope other departments in Maine send officers down to Portland to see what the potential response can be if they get the training they need," Alfond said.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is a family therapist who brings a mental health care-provider's perspective to the issue.

"As leaders, we must examine these issues and seek solutions that will enhance our community mental health system to ensure that individuals get the help they need," Eves said in a written statement. "The families challenged by mental illness and our police officers deserve our efforts to change this reality."

Eves said it's often a tragic intersection of fact and circumstances that makes it necessary for officers to use deadly force.

"These events call upon all of us to question whether we have done enough, as a community, to prevent, to intervene, and to provide the needed mental health resources that may have averted these unfortunate and irreversible outcomes," Eves said.

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, acknowledged that Maine lawmakers "haven't made a significant amount of headway" in their efforts to reduce police shootings in general.

As House chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee until the recent election, Plummer spent time with police officers and understands how tough it is make the split-second decision to pull the trigger in a moment of crisis.

Still, Plummer said, he believes the Legislature should work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Maine to improve community mental health care and increase crisis intervention training for police officers.

"I think we can do more on both ends," Plummer said. "You're always going to be faced with the situation of the officer perceiving himself or others to be in danger, but there is room for improvement and hopefully cutting down on the number of fatalities."

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is former House chairwoman and recent ranking Democrat on the Criminal Justice Committee. She also has spent time with police on patrol, so she shares Plummer's understanding of the challenges they face, especially in light of funding cuts for mental health care.

"If you're the mom of one of those kids in crisis, and you're locked in the bedroom, sometimes the only resource that's going to answer is the police," Haskell said. "In my experience, (officers) were far more considerate and collaborative than I would have imagined."

However, Haskell said police shootings still deserve closer examination. She noted that the Legislature created a new system three years ago to review police shootings, but the bill didn't require law enforcement officials to report their findings to the Criminal Justice Committee.

As a result, few committee members have assessed the results of the new system. Haskell said she believes they should review the shooting reports anyway, if only to increase their awareness of each incident and the public safety issues involved.

"It may not result in policy change," she said, "but at least there would be increased awareness on the committee."

She also believes the committee should review the results of crisis intervention training that's being offered by NAMI-Maine.

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