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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Portland police have shot 11 people since 1990. The newspaper sought any internal reports or complaints, but only five reports were available because the city's labor contract requires that internal affairs records be purged after seven years.

In a 2008 case, an officer fatally shot a suspect who dragged him along with his car while trying to flee. The shooting was found to be justified, but the officer received a one-day suspension for not properly maintaining his cruiser's mobile video recorder.

TOUGH, RARE SITUATION FOR POLICE

The standards governing police shootings, especially at the Attorney General's Office, are not widely understood outside law enforcement circles. That can lead to public confusion and frustration, and a sense that police are unaccountable.

"There's almost this theme that the police aren't well-controlled," said state Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland. "But if you look at the sheer volume of physical arrests and traffic stops, deadly force is a tiny fraction."

Dion is a former Portland police officer and Cumberland County sheriff. He chaired a state task force on mental illness and deadly force. And he used his law enforcement connections to take members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee last year to the police academy, where they participated in use-of-force firearms training. Delogu, the law professor who is generally critical of police handling of deadly force incidents, also joined the trip.

Dion said one goal was to give lawmakers a first-hand experience, and to dispel the notion that police can intentionally wound suspects or shoot knives from their hands.

"The public thinks cops are Olympian sharpshooters," he said. "There's this idea that you can use deadly force in a non-deadly fashion."

SUING THE POLICE OFTEN FUTILE

The courtroom provides a final forum for shooting victims or their survivors who feel police acted improperly. In Maine, it's rare for those cases to succeed.

Individuals, or their estates, have the option to sue over the incidents in either federal or state court. The grounds could be violation of civil rights or the Maine Tort Claims Act, which is a more restricted definition.

The newspaper reviewed 22 cases between 2001 and 2011 in which police shot impaired or mentally ill people. Five of those cases resulted in civil lawsuits against officers and their agencies. None so far has resulted in a judgment against police.

Attorneys who represent police, municipalities, counties and the state in such cases are unaware of any settlements in police shootings in the past decade.

"By the time police in Maine shoot someone, it's pretty clearly justified," said Edward Benjamin, a Portland lawyer who specializes in defending municipal police officers. He said he has handled more than a dozen cases over the past 27 years and never had one go to trial.

Mark Dunlap, a lawyer who has represented Portland in excessive-force cases, said the Maine Tort Claims Act provides certain immunities to government employees on the job.

"Because of the general immunity police officers have by virtue of laws that have grown up around these types of things, a lot of (cases) are dismissed" with no settlement or trial, he said.

There are a couple of older, notable exceptions.

A wrongful-death federal lawsuit filed by Katherine Hegarty's husband was settled in 1997 for $200,000. In 2000, the town of Brunswick reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the sister of Richard Weymouth. He was confined to a wheelchair but threatened a police officer, who shot him to death in a 1997 confrontation.

NOT A HOT ISSUE FOR LAWMAKERS

To Donald Pilon of Saco, a former state representative who went on the police academy visit organized by Dion last year, these rare exceptions argue for more oversight and accountability.

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