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

(Continued from page 5)

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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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"Look at the number of shootings we have, and they're all ruled legally justified," he said.

Three years ago, Pilon co-sponsored a bill in the Legislature aimed at examining the training, policies and tactics that police used prior to a fatal shooting. It would have required police departments to form review panels dominated by non-police members such as clergy, a mental health professional and a lawyer. Delogu, the UMaine professor who is critical of police use of deadly force, helped draft the bill for Pilon.

But the measure was withdrawn after it ran into opposition from police agencies and failed to win support from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Lawmakers instead passed a resolve measure that requires each police chief to set up an "incident review team." These teams have one non-police member and focus on whether policies were understood and followed, and whether training and equipment were adequate.

Last winter, the board of trustees at the police academy sent a summary of the incident review team process to the committee. The summary listed the five shootings in 2010, and the nine in 2011.

But the summary did not include the actual results of any team's reviews of individual shootings. The review teams' findings are public records, but there's no requirement to distribute them, or to sum up the findings for lawmakers.

In an interview earlier this year, Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he was satisfied with the limited information. Plummer was the co-chairman of the criminal justice committee at the time the legislative resolve was passed. He said he hadn't thought about reading the publicly available incident review team reports, but would do so.

Plummer also said he didn't see a need to bring more people who are not police onto the review teams - beyond the one public member required by the resolve.

"I don't see a problem with police evaluating police," he said. "I don't think they are protecting their own."

There were no attempts in the last session of the Legislature to reconsider changes to the state's deadly force law or policies. But it's possible that the new Democratic majority will be open to revisiting at least one issue.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, was the ranking Democrat on the criminal justice panel last year and hopes to serve on it again. In an interview last month, Haskell said the newspaper's findings convinced her that reading the review team reports should be a priority on the committee. She said she planned to examine if they should be provided directly to lawmakers.

"At some point," Haskell said, "there's going to be a tragedy and someone's going to raise this issue. We're going to identify it as a missing link."

Staff Writers Ann Kim and David Hench contributed to this report.

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