Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Tux Turkel firstname.lastname@example.org
Don't ask for details about how and why Maine police officers are disciplined for mistakes made in a shooting incident.
That information is confidential: Maine State Police, who have been involved in 35 shootings since 1990 and have disciplined two officers as a result of those incidents, will make public only bare-bones descriptions of the disciplinary actions.
Don't ask whether a police shooting was ever found to be unjustified. Maine law all but guarantees that the answer will be no.
And don't ask whether Maine police use their guns more than their counterparts in other states or the nation as a whole. Those statistics aren't available.
Knowing about a department's policies for using deadly force, whether those policies have been broached and whether officers were disciplined for any violations, are important disclosures. They contribute to public confidence in police training, skills and accountability.
But until recently, there was virtually no publicly available information about how police shootings were reviewed, outside of the mandatory investigations conducted by the Maine Attorney General's Office. And even today, details involving discipline are largely kept secret.
For instance: Maine State Police are involved in one-third of all shootings, and the agency does its own internal reviews of these incidents. But public-access laws include confidentiality provisions that prohibit the release of all but a sliver of the information about any disciplinary actions.
Chris Parr, legal counsel for the state police, said the agency is only allowed to make public its "final written decision" in cases that resulted in disciplinary action against an employee. The decisions are summarized in one-page letters with few details.
The newspaper sought information on any disciplinary action from the 35 state police shootings since 1990. The agency turned up only two cases.
The first was in 2000 and resulted in a five-day unpaid suspension for a state trooper. A four-paragraph letter from former State Police Colonel Michael Sperry to Trooper Clifford Peterson simply notes a prior meeting about the suspension "based on your conduct on September 11."
Asked by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for more information, Parr responded that the document was the "final written decision," and that, as a matter of law, "no other records relating to that case may be publicly released by our agency."
But a 2000 news report on the incident reveals that the trooper tried to shoot a gun out of the hands of a teenage boy who was threatening to commit suicide in Ellsworth. That action was "inconsistent" with state police policies, the department said.
The teen's shoulder was grazed by one of the bullets, but he did not require medical treatment.
A second disciplinary action is more timely, and more serious.
In November 2011, Trooper Jon Brown shot and killed Michael Curtis in a confrontation at a deserted fairgounds in Dover-Foxcroft. Curtis was drunk, and had just shot and killed a man at a nearby nursing home.
When Brown arrived at the fairgrounds, he was unaware that the local sheriff had been negotiating by radio with Curtis, who was asking for help. The sheriff walked toward Curtis, and when the sheriff ignored Brown's warnings to get away, the trooper shot and killed Curtis, who was holding a handgun.
Many details of how the state police handled Brown's case are confidential, but a "final agency action" letter from Col. Robert Williams, chief of the state police, provides an outline.
The one-page letter notes that Brown violated department policies. These policies involve use of force, establishing command and control, and information gathering.
Brown was put on unpaid leave for 30 days last summer. He also was reassigned to the force's commercial vehicle division. He then was required to complete "remedial training" in areas including use of force and "responding to a barricaded subject," according to the letter from Williams.
The state police policy manual addresses the use of deadly force. It states, in part: "An officer is to use only that degree of physical force that the officer reasonably and actually believes is necessary to effectively bring a situation under control while protecting the officer and/or any other persons."
Frustrated with how police shootings were being handled, some Maine lawmakers proposed a new system three years ago. Their idea was to create seven-member, community-based panels to review shootings and report to the public. But the effort failed after police officials convinced legislators on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that it wasn't necessary.
In response, lawmakers passed a resolve that requires "independent review teams," dominated by police, to examine the procedures in officer-involved shootings.
Maine police have shot 20 people since the independent review team system was created. Earlier this year, trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy sent a report to the Legislature on the 14 shootings that took place in 2010 and 2011 and were reviewed by the teams. But the report was only four pages long, consisting of an outline of the policy behind the new system and a list of the incidents. It made no effort to assess the performance of the review teams or the new process.
The former co-chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee said earlier this year that he was satisfied with the trustees' summary.
"The report meets what the resolve asked for," said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham. "Whether we need to go further remains to be seen."
Plummer also acknowledged at the time that he hadn't read any of the incident reports.
In Maine, every police shooting is investigated by the Attorney General's Office. Since 1990, the office has reviewed 101 shootings or other uses of deadly force, in which 51 people died. But the investigations have a narrow focus, limited to determining whether an officer who shot someone was so negligent that he or she should be liable for criminal prosecution. The scope of the inquiries is so narrow that the shootings always pass the state's review.
"To the best of our knowledge, none has been found to be unjustified," said Brenda Kielty, a spokeswoman for the Maine attorney general.
The public can see electronic versions of the investigative reports posted on the office's website. Until last winter, the listing ended in 2008. After an inquiry from the Portland Press Herald, the list was extended back to 2003, although some of the earlier postings are not functional.
The Attorney General's Office keeps police shooting records in its files for a year, after which time they are retained in the state's archives for 10 years, Kielty said.
It's hard to know how Maine police compare with their counterparts in other states when it comes to using deadly force.
There is no national database of officer-involved shootings. That's because there is no consensus about what constitutes force - and no requirement that agencies report these incidents to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"We have no idea how much missing data there are," said Andrea Burch, a bureau statistician in Washington, D.C. who compiles statistics on law enforcement trends.