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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As an example, he cites a case in November 2011, in which a Maine game warden shot and killed Eric Richard, a despondent, armed, Rumford police officer, after a search in woods near his home. The attorney general found the shooting was justified, but Delogu said he thinks the incident could have been resolved peacefully, with patience.

"Here's a guy who is clearly disturbed," Delogu said. "Did we need to chase him into the woods? You can pick him up the next day."

But to York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette, outside observers who judge police shootings with incomplete information are "Monday morning quarterbacking." Although there are no national statistics to compare officer-involved shootings state by state, Ouellette said his contacts with police elsewhere convince him that Maine officers are well-trained and very conservative about using physical force.

"I think officers in this state go the extra mile to avoid that," he said.
Ouellette had to confront the complex nature of police shootings last year, when one of his deputies killed a psychotic man in the York County town of Lyman.

The man, Andrew Landry, told family members about forces "in my head and coming through anything electrical." He asked if his cousin would bleed if he stabbed her, because she was a robot. Worried for the family's safety and unable to convince Landry to seek treatment, his grandmother finally called the sheriff's office and told them what was happening.

Two sergeants arrived after dark at a mobile home and went inside, fearing that Landry would harm his cousin. Landry charged at one of them with kitchen knives. When his partner's Taser failed to stop the advance, the deputy fired four shots from his handgun, killing Landry, who was 22 years old.

The attorney general's investigation found the shooting was justified. A review team picked by Ouellette, made up largely of police, reached the same conclusion.

Neither of the York County sergeants had Crisis Intervention Team training, a program that teaches officers skills for dealing with people who are in a mental health crisis. The review team concluded, however, that the training wouldn't have mattered, due to the speed with which the situation escalated.

Waiting out the suspect wasn't an option, either, Ouellette said. One family member had left the building, but another remained inside and at risk.

"In my experience, I don't see any other way this could have been done," said Ouellette, who has had a 39-year law enforcement career in Maine. "I could have had everyone with CIT training and it wouldn't have made a difference."

But CIT training is important, Ouellette said, noting that 13 of his 21 patrol officers have gone through the program, and more are expected to attend a training session next year in Sanford.

DEALING WITH MENTALLY ILL FACTOR

When a disturbed person is shot by police, it's really a failure of the state's mental health system, said Carol Carothers, executive director of Maine's affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"The real issue is prevention, before it gets to a point where police are there with weapons," she said.

Maine has 170 law enforcement agencies, 134 of which have at least one full-time officer. All police academy graduates take a basic, seven-hour course to help them identify mental illness indicators and defuse crisis situations. Since 2009, working officers have gotten two hours of training in assessing use-of-force situations.

Relatively few, however, participate in Crisis Intervention Team training. Roughly 40 percent of Maine police officers are part-time reserve officers, who may have only minimal training. Many rural communities rely on these officers.

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