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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Carothers' staff organizes and helps teach the CIT program. She would like more police to attend, but understands the financial pressures on police departments. She also is reluctant to comment on whether more training could have prevented some shootings.

"I never want to second-guess cops," she said. "Cops run in when people run out, and they're trained to keep people from hurting themselves. They are the people who step up in our society."

LAWS SET JUSTIFICATION STANDARDS

Current policies and legal practices on deadly force in Maine stem from an incident in 1992. That's when a state trooper and two county sheriff's deputies stormed a remote cabin outside Jackman and killed Katherine Hegarty, a Maine Guide who had been threatening campers.

The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by their superiors, but Hegarty's death triggered national protests and an examination of how and when police use deadly force. It led the Legislature to pass a law - known as the Hegarty Law - that upgraded training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and set minimum standards for the use of deadly force.

A related law, enacted in 1995, required the state Attorney General's Office to investigate whenever police shoot someone or use some other form of deadly force. The law also established the two-part "reasonable belief" standard for determining whether a shooting is justified. In Maine, all shootings investigated by the attorney general have been found to be justified under this standard.

Attorneys general in New Hampshire and Vermont cite similar "reasonable belief" language in their reviews of deadly force cases. The principle has been upheld nationally in test cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

This doesn't mean the officer's judgment is always correct, said Terry Dwyer, a retired New York State Police officer and assistant professor at Western Connecticut State College. But courts and laws tend to err on the side of officer safety, he said.

"In general, it's going to favor the officer - that's the standard," Dwyer said.

That standard also applies to internal disciplinary actions against officers who have shot people. As a result, public access to records of discipline are severely restricted.

The newspaper attempted to review disciplinary actions taken by the two departments involved in the largest share of shootings in Maine, state police and the Portland Police Department.

State police have been involved in 35 shootings since 1990. The newspaper sought any incidents involving disciplinary action back to that date. A state police data search turned up only one case, in 2000. It resulted in a five-day suspension, without pay, for a state trooper.

Under Maine law, all records of disciplinary action are deemed confidential, except for the final letter of discipline. In the 2000 case, the letter provided no details of the incident.

Using other sources, the newspaper learned that the case involved an incident in Ellsworth in which a trooper fired two shots at a 17-year-old boy who was holding a handgun to his head and threatening to commit suicide. The shots, according to a police statement at the time, were meant to knock the gun out of the boy's hand, a practice that's unauthorized and considered dangerous.

One shot grazed the boy's shoulder, but he did not require medical treatment, police said.

More recently, a second disciplinary action has become public

It stems from a confrontation last year in Dover-Foxcroft, in which Trooper Jon Brown shot and killed Michael Curtis, who was drunk and had just shot a man outside a nursing home. The attorney general found Brown's actions were legally justified. But state police determined Brown had violated department policies and suspended him without pay for 30 days last summer, transferring him from patrol duties and requiring him to complete "remedial training" in areas including use of force.

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