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

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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 review team reports provide a second layer of scrutiny by assessing six points. These include whether department policy was clear and understandable, whether changes in procedures or practices are needed, and whether training and equipment are adequate.

Each law enforcement agency in Maine must have a written policy on using physical force. They must meet minimum provisions adopted by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy board of trustees and reflect a model policy supported by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

The Press Herald obtained copies of the team reports that have been completed and are publicly available. Although the process is new and evolving, it gives some insight into how police seek to resolve these volatile situations.

SAMPLE OF CONFRONTATION POLICY

Among the clearest examples is the Use of Control policy guidelines developed by the York County Sheriff's Office. The process is laid out in a review-team report released last July after the fatal shooting of Andrew Landry, 22, in Lyman.

Police responded to a call from family members after Landry showed dangerous and psychotic behavior and refused all attempts to get him help. Two sergeants arrived after dark at a mobile home and went inside.

Landry charged at one of them with kitchen knives. When his partner's Taser failed to stop the advance, the other deputy fired four shots from his handgun and killed the disturbed man.

The department's policy calls for using "the minimum control reasonably necessary," but says police can resort to more severe methods of control to overcome increasing resistance or an increasingly dangerous threat to public safety. To escalate force, officers should follow this sequence:

Presence. Verbal commands. Compliance techniques. Disabling pepper agents. Impact weapons. Electronic devices. Deadly force.

The review team noted in the Landry case that police had established presence by wearing uniforms and driving marked cruisers. They had given him verbal commands. The team concluded, however, that the speed of events and close quarters didn't allow for compliance techniques, pepper spray and impact weapons. It then noted that the electronic device (Taser) was ineffective, which made deadly force justified.

FLAWED HANDLING OF FATAL SHOOTING

In the Begin shooting, where police entered his trailer, Maine's attorney general found the police action was legally justified. But the review team, made up of three lieutenants from the state police, the chief of the Brewer Police Department and a public member from Vassalboro, reviewed the incident under different standards. The team looked at seven state police policy guidelines and determined that they were followed.

However, the Begin team also flagged two notable shortcomings - in planning and risk assessment - and recommended corrective actions.

In its first finding, the team concluded that "There did not appear to be any tactical planning established between Trooper Flynn and the two Border Patrol agents. At the very least, there should have been some discussion between officers to plan an approach and define each other's responsibilities."

The team recommended that "At the very least, further discussion is recommended for some training application in the proper usage of tactical planning prior to approaching a suspect or residence under the circumstances of this incident (prior knowledge of a weapon involved, alcohol usage, etc.)"

The team said supervisors should take action: "The firearms instructors will remind all troopers about the need to establish a tactical plan during the next range."

In its second finding, the team concluded that "There did not appear to be a consideration for a risk assessment by Trooper Flynn in this incident. With the provided information from three witnesses, a basic risk assessment would have provided Trooper Flynn with the tools to notify his immediate supervisor and to possibly request additional resources prior to arriving at the residence."

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