Law enforcement agencies in Maine must ban the use of chokeholds except when deadly force is justified, according to new mandatory standards released Tuesday by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees.

Police departments also must adopt policies requiring officers to intervene if a fellow officer uses excessive force, the board says.

The new statewide standards must be implemented by November and represent significant reforms for many use-of-force policies guiding Maine police.

A Portland Press Herald analysis of the policies of 11 of Maine’s largest police departments found that only five explicitly ban chokeholds, including one department that adopted the policy Tuesday after being questioned about the tactic by a reporter. Only two of the 11 departments have language outlining an officer’s “duty to intervene” if a fellow officer uses excessive force.

The new standards were adopted Friday at a meeting of the academy’s board of trustees, a group composed mostly of law enforcement and government officials that is responsible for setting minimum standards for police policy across the state. The changes were presented publicly Tuesday afternoon.

Among other changes, police officers must attempt to de-escalate confrontations “when feasible,” must not shoot at moving vehicles unless deadly force is necessary and must request emergency medical assistance if someone in custody “appears injured or in medical distress.”

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association will now write a model policy based on the guidelines, and departments statewide will be required to meet or exceed the new standards by Nov. 1.

Departments statewide have to affirm in writing once a year that their policies comply with state minimum standards, but there is nothing stopping departments from adopting the new minimums immediately, said Rick Desjardins, interim director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

The policy reforms were released amid nationwide calls for reforms sparked by the killing of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he lost consciousness and other officers watched. The death of Floyd, a Black man, led to demonstrations in Maine and nationwide to protest systemic racism and police brutality.

The announcement also comes one day before Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and Attorney General Aaron Frey are scheduled to appear before a special joint committee meeting of lawmakers who oversee criminal justice, public safety and the judiciary. Sauschuck and Frey are expected to face tough questions about what the state will do to respond to the outrage  about police brutality, as well as data that shows Black people in Maine are arrested at a far higher rate than others.

The legislative hearing can be watched live on YouTube beginning at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Chokeholds have become the foremost symbol of police excessive force in the wake of Floyd’s death, and cities and states around the county have moved to prohibit them, except in cases when an officer must use lethal force. President Trump signed an executive order last week encouraging police departments to ban chokeholds except when an officer’s life is in danger. Congressional Democrats are pushing for a national ban on the practice.

According to both the criminal  justice academy and a number of law enforcement officials, chokeholds are not taught at Maine’s police academy as a method of restraining suspects and, therefore, officers are effectively not allowed to use them. But the state’s model use-of-force policy has not explicitly barred them.

A small number of Maine’s large police forces have added specific language banning their use when lethal force is not needed, making it clear to their communities and officers that the practice is prohibited. Those departments are more equipped than smaller police forces to adopt policies that go beyond the state’s minimum standards.

Five of the 10 police departments from the largest municipalities in Maine, including Portland and Biddeford, currently have language banning chokeholds in their use-of-force policies. The Maine State Police, the Lewiston Police Department and the York County Sheriff’s department are among those that do not explicitly ban chokeholds in their policies. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s office has yet to provide its use-of-force policy.

Sanford Chief of Police Thomas Connolly said everyone in his department knows that chokeholds are not allowed, even though it wasn’t written into their policies until Tuesday. Connolly added the language after being asked why his department didn’t have an explicit prohibition. The recent change to department policy isn’t rare – at least two other departments already have added or are in the process of updating their use-of-force policies.

The Biddeford Police Department added language to its policy on June 8 that requires officers to intervene if a fellow officer uses excessive force.

“As law enforcement, we have an obligation to change or evolve as circumstances require,” Chief Roger Beaupre said of the update.

Portland is the only other large department in Maine with “duty-to-intervene” language.

In Westbrook,  Chief Janine Roberts contracted with an outside firm to help update the department’s policies with best practices. The updated use-of-force policy will likely be available in early August, she said.

The decision by the academy trustees will create more consistency from the patchwork policy language found in use-of-force policies across the state. It also aligns the state’s policies with recommendations from the activist-led “8 Can’t Wait” movement.

“Law enforcement leaders have received a bunch of emails,” Sauschuck said Tuesday. “We’re constantly plugged in on the evolution of these topics, and these happen to be the ones that we see the most often, and are ones that we could immediately address through the board (of trustees).”

However, the new standards won’t address training disparities between departments.

“The time, the money, the resources and the staffing hours that are put in to make these trainings happen is not something that all communities can afford, or that the community leaders support,” Roberts said.

Officers in Westbrook undergo four extra days of training every year, in addition to state-mandated training.

William Stratis works as a defensive tactics trainer with the Portland Police Department, where he has been an officer since 2004. He noted that officers must qualify to carry a firearm on a regular basis, but receive no regular training on physical force unless their department offers additional training.

“You can go 15, 20, 30 years and there’s no proficiency-based defensive tactics training that you have to do,” Stratis said. “Some of the smaller departments don’t have the resources or the manpower to do defensive tactics training.”

The trustees’ new guidelines do not suggest changes in how departments enforce their written guidelines. Officers who violate the state’s standards are subject to losing their certification to work as a law enforcement officer, according to the trustees. However, the new guidelines do include a new requirement that law enforcement agencies report any complaint of bias-based profiling to the Maine Office of the Attorney General.

The new guidelines are certain to be addressed during the legislative hearing Wednesday.

However, Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat and co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she hopes the discussion focuses on future changes, not just existing policies.

“I truly hope that tomorrow isn’t a Power Point, dog-and-pony show of, ‘This is how great we are, and we have no issues here,’” Warren said.

“We have to make sure that we all enter that room and leave that room with the goal of making sure law enforcement is actually the protector of all, not just some, not just even on your best day but even on your worst day, even when you’re having a mental health crisis or you struggle with alcohol or substances,” she said.

Staff Writers Matt Byrne and Megan Gray contributed to this article.

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