December 12, 2012

When police pull the trigger in crisis, the mentally ill often are the ones being shot

But is all this bloodshed necessary? An examination finds missed opportunities to avoid the confrontations that have left 33 dead in the past 13 years. In the most volatile of these, unstable people face first responders who are ill-equipped to deal with them.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

Carol Paulson thought she was doing the right thing when she called 911 and asked Kennebunk police to come and get her daughter.

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Katherine Paulson died after being shot by police in her mother’s home in Kennebunk in March 2011. Authorities said after the shooting that the police response might have been different if the officers had known about the 39-year-old woman’s diagnosis of mental illness.

Family photo

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Carol Paulson of Kennebunk called police last year intent on helping her ill daughter get back on her medication by having her involuntarily committed to a hospital. But Katherine Paulson wielded a knife when officers arrived and was shot.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Thirty-nine-year-old Katherine Paulson, who was mentally ill and had stopped taking her medications, could be violent at times. Her mother told the dispatcher that her daughter had psychological problems, and that she feared for her own safety.

In calling police, Paulson hoped to have her daughter involuntarily committed to a treatment center, where she would be medicated again and stabilized. But 19 seconds after police arrived at the Paulson condominium, Katherine Paulson was dying on the kitchen floor.

Officer Joshua Morneau, who was not told by the dispatcher about Paulson's mental health problems, had shot her four times at close range. He later told investigators that he was cornered and felt threatened, after the woman came at him with a knife clutched in her right hand and refused his orders to drop it.

"I was looking for assistance," Carol Paulson said. "I wasn't looking for what I got, let's put it that way - the end of her life and the end of my life as I know it."

An investigation by the state Attorney General's Office found that the shooting was legally justified. An independent review led by Kennebunk police concluded that department policies were clear and training was appropriate.

A cop. A gun. A disturbed or impaired person with a weapon of their own.

These elements can be the ingredients of tragedy, and when they are combined, that's often the result.

Since 2000, police in Maine have fired their guns at 71 people, hitting 57 of them. Thirty-three of those people died. A review of these 57 shootings by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that at least 24 of them, or 42 percent, involved people with mental health problems. Seven of the shootings were alcohol-related. Two involved drugs.

Of the 33 people who were killed, at least 19, or 58 percent, had mental health problems.

Maine has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country, and police shootings are relatively rare here. But the newspaper's examination of these events shows that once police do draw their guns, a fatal outcome is likely. It also determined that while police may be aware that they are dealing with a mentally unstable person, they don't always take adequate steps to avoid violence.

Among the newspaper's findings:

The vast majority of Maine's 3,500 police officers lack the advanced training that can prevent or defuse the use of deadly force. Maine State Police, who are involved in more shootings than any other agency, have sent only 14 of their 200 patrol troopers to a training program offered in Maine and recognized nationally for its effectiveness.

The Maine Legislature created a new system to review police shootings three years ago. But key lawmakers and police agencies haven't taken the time to read the findings, even though 20 people have been shot since the reviews began.

The Maine Attorney General's Office, which investigates all police shootings, doesn't ask whether violence could have been avoided. Instead, the reviews look only at whether an officer reasonably felt that he or someone else was threatened, and that deadly force was needed. The office has investigated 101 incidents since 1990, in which 51 people have died. Every shooting was found to be justified.

Confidentiality protections for law enforcement personnel and a lack of data make it all but impossible for the public to evaluate police shootings in Maine. There's no way to assess how Maine compares with other states, whether any shootings could have been avoided, or to what extent officers have been disciplined for shooting someone unnecessarily.

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