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

Neil Begin had been drinking heavily and using a hunting rifle to threaten family members, who called Maine State Police. Begin was alone when police went to his mobile home in Cyr Plantation in 2010, intending to arrest him for criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon.

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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When he refused to come out, a state police trooper and two U.S. Border Patrol agents forced the door and went in. And when Begin allegedly pointed a rifle at them, the state trooper and one of the agents both fired their weapons, killing him.

Begin clearly provoked a police response, but the officers made basic mistakes in how they handled the incident, according to an internal review. A written report of that review is publicly available, and addresses a central issue in the use of deadly force: whether better training can help police deal with unstable and potentially dangerous people without shooting them.

But very few Maine officers will have the opportunity to learn from the incident, because they aren't being made aware of the report's existence.

Moreover, the legislators who were involved in creating a special review process that generates these reports weren't interested in making them more available. They also apparently couldn't take the time to read the reviews they ordered.

That attitude may change, as Democrats take over control of the committee from Republicans in the upcoming legislative session.

Police in Maine have used deadly force 20 times since the new reporting requirement went into effect two years ago. In 12 of the cases, the suspect was killed. State police were involved in seven of the incidents and five deaths. Ten of the reports have been completed.

Early this year, the board of trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy sent a status update on the new review team process to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which oversees police matters in the Legislature. A few weeks later, the Portland Press Herald sent emails to all 13 members of the panel.

The newspaper asked committee members if they had any reaction to the update, whether they had read any of the team reports or thought the reports should be posted online, so other police might benefit from these experiences and recommendations.
No lawmaker replied.

In follow-up phone interviews, the co-chairman of the committee, Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he hadn't thought to read the team reviews, but would belatedly do so with an eye toward the issue of mentally ill and impaired suspects. The committee's minority leader, Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, also said she hadn't read the reviews, but that the number of shootings over the past two years made her wonder if training is adequate.

"I looked at (the update) and thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could go a year without any deaths,' " Haskell said at the time.

Six shootings have taken place in 2012, three of them involving mental illness or alcohol. And Haskell, who may serve on the committee next year with Democrats again in control, said last month that she now thinks the reports should be required reading.

Haskell said she'd explore whether the state's reporting requirements should be changed, so that the committee receives copies of each review-team finding.

HOW THE REVIEW PROCESS WORKS

The new reporting requirement was ordered by the Legislature as a compromise. It was set up in place of a proposal to create independent, seven-member citizen review panels that would include a lawyer, clergy person and mental health professional. That idea was opposed by law enforcement and failed to win support.

Here's how the compromise works:

Review teams are appointed by a department chief and must include at least one state police officer and one member of the public. The team reports supplement, but don't replace, mandatory investigations by the state Attorney General's Office that focus on legal justification.

(Continued on page 2)

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