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 tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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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Against this backdrop, police in Maine shot nine people in 2011. Another six have been shot so far this year.

The 2011 shootings, which tied a record set in 2008, included five people who had mental health problems or were suffering a psychotic crisis, and one person who was drunk. All six people were killed.

Of the six shootings this year, three involved people with mental health or alcohol problems. One - an armed confrontation in June between U.S. Border Patrol agents and an intoxicated man in Jackman - ended with the man's death.

In another, an Edinburg man who made homicidal and suicidal threats on the phone to state police was shot and wounded by a trooper when the man came at him with a knife. In the third case, a Hermon man shot himself to death after he was hit in the leg by state police during an exchange of gunfire in July.

Although shootings make headlines, police say the public doesn't appreciate the many times they're able to resolve volatile confrontations without using their guns.

Some incidents this year have drawn media coverage, though. For instance: Portland police used tear gas in May to end a standoff, after a man shot a woman with what turned out to be a pellet gun. Police in Mechanic Falls used a Taser in June to disarm an intoxicated man who threatened to kill a woman. In July, state troopers helped Winslow police end a standoff in which a man with a mental disorder threatened officers.

But violent encounters with disturbed people are likely to increase in Maine, police and mental health experts say. Ongoing cutbacks in social and psychiatric services, the return of veterans troubled by the experience of war, and the escalating abuse of prescription drugs are contributing to situations that put police in the role of front-line mental health workers. This trend is being observed nationwide, and in other countries.

"It's really a mental-health services problem," said Rosanna Esposito, deputy director of The Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va. "The reason police are involved is they're the last resort."

As more police find themselves in daily confrontations with mentally disturbed people, chiefs are putting their officers through a special Crisis Intervention Training program. But the effort takes time and money, and its value is hard to quantify. In Maine, the department that has been involved in the most shootings - the state police - has had very little of this training.

A recognition of these trends led the newspaper to look closely at issues raised by police shootings, including state and local policies on deadly force, police officer training and how cases are investigated. At the root of the examination were two questions: Could some of the violence and death have been avoided? Can steps be taken to help prevent future tragedies?

The newspaper found that Maine's current system of investigating police shootings largely fails to answer these important questions. These shortcomings contribute to a perception that Maine police aren't fully accountable when they pull the trigger, despite the sometimes life-and-death nature of their actions.

DISAGREEMENT ON POLICE METHODS

The findings also form a backdrop for disagreement between advocates - who want to see more alternative responses to deadly force - and police officials who say that, overall, their actions are responsible and prudent.

"I want the whole ethos and training to be altered," said Orlando Delogu, a University of Maine School of Law professor emeritus. "The gun gets pulled too quickly, that's my view."

Delogu helped draft a bill three years ago that would have created independent citizen-review panels to look into deadly force shootings. That effort failed, but Delogu remains a vocal critic of current practices. He maintains that police could often back away from situations rather than shoot, or use less-lethal techniques, such as mace and Tasers.

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