December 12, 2012

Maine police make spotty use of crisis training

Issues of cost and staffing limit participation in a program that could protect the mentally ill and officers alike.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

State police and sheriff's deputies had drawn their guns and were taking cover behind their cruisers and trees when Detective Sgt. John Burne pulled up.

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Tuesday, Feb.21, 2012. Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry outside the Sagadahoc County Courthouse and Sherff's Dept. in Bath.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Burne's department, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office in Bath, was responding to a call from a panic-stricken wife. Her husband, who was in a dispute with a neighbor, showed her a handgun and made threats about harming the person.

The woman left her Woolwich house and phoned a local mental health agency, which in turn contacted police. Five deputies and three Maine State Police troopers responded, setting the scene in November of 2011 for a standoff that had the potential to turn violent.

But this police action had a peaceful ending.

Burne is a trained negotiator who has taken a special crisis intervention course aimed at defusing confrontations with mentally disturbed people. After consulting with the other officers by radio, Burne used his cellphone to contact the man.

"I got him to quickly understand that I wanted to help him," Burne said. "I had a brief window to establish some trust."

Within 15 minutes, the man came out, unarmed and complying with instructions to keep his hands in the air. Burne walked up to him and introduced himself. The man allowed Burne to place him in handcuffs and drive him to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

Burne, who retired earlier this year after 30 years in law enforcement, is modest about his role and said other officers could have achieved the same outcome. But the fact is, the majority of Maine police officers lack special training to help them peacefully defuse similar confrontations.

At a time when police increasingly respond to dangerous situations involving mental illness or substance abuse, this lack of training can increase the risk of officers using deadly force to gain control, or of being injured in the line of duty.

These conclusions are based on a review of dozens of police shootings in Maine, a tally of departments and officers who have received special training, and interviews in Maine and elsewhere with law enforcement officials and criminologists.

The training gap is most apparent with the Maine State Police. Since 1990, state police have used deadly force more often than any other department, firing a gun in roughly one third of the state's 101 shooting incidents.

State troopers often are first responders and sometimes act as front-line counselors to people who are angry and armed. But of the 200 troopers who patrol Maine highways, only 14 have received Crisis Intervention Team training.

This training, known as CIT, is a voluntary, community-based program that helps police and corrections officers handle situations involving people who are undergoing a mental health crisis. At its core are techniques meant to calm disturbed people and lower the risk of violence.

CIT isn't a panacea, and its impact is hard to quantify. But advocates say the specialized, 40-hour training program, pioneered in Memphis, Tenn., can reduce incidents of force and restraint, as well as officer injuries.

Every department in Maine "should strive to maintain at least one CIT officer per shift," according to the state's model policy for responding to mental illness and involuntary commitment. The policy was endorsed last January by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

But police are a long way from reaching that goal. The main reason is money. With tight budgets, administrators say they need to balance the benefits with the impact and cost of losing a patrol officer for a week, or paying for a replacement.

That balance illustrates the tension between "frequency and criticality," said David Klinger, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Police shootings are infrequent in most communities, so administrators are reluctant to divert resources from critical, more common needs.

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