When a law enforcement officer in Maine uses deadly force, the case is reviewed both by the officer’s department and by the attorney general’s office. These reviews focus on whether the use of deadly force, typically firing a gun, was justified. In more than 100 cases since 1990, the attorney general has never found the use of force to be unjustified.
What has long been missing from these reviews is consideration of whether there were alternative ways to resolve these encounters before they ended with deadly force.
The intent of any such review is not to second guess police officers, who are on the forefront of the opioid and mental health crises that plague Maine and the nation, and are called to end domestic disputes and to protect our school children. Rather, the intent should be to seek ways to defuse dangerous situations before they become violent or deadly.
Those questions will now be asked by a new panel created by lawmakers earlier this year. We’re not sure that a new layer of bureaucracy was needed to bring this additional scrutiny to these cases, but we are hopeful that the Deadly Force Review Panel will add a valuable new perspective.
The panel will cover a variety of viewpoints, including law enforcement, mental health and civil rights. It will include three members of the public. It comes after a group, put together by then-Attorney General Janet Mills, was asked to review Maine’s handling of deadly force incidents after a record high 13 such incidents in 2017 and recommended more training and mental health resources for law enforcement.
The purpose of the new panel’s examinations, according to the law that created it, “is to identify whether there was compliance with accepted and best practices under the particular circumstances and whether the practices were sufficient for the particular circumstances or whether the practices require adjustment or improvement.
“The panel shall recommend methods of improving standards, including changes to statutes, rules, training, policies and procedures designed to ensure incorporation of best practices that demonstrate increased public safety and officer safety,” the law says. Attorney General Aaron Frey told the Bangor Daily News that this charge was somewhat flexible and the panel would go where information and community needs lead them.
The new review “will add a level of insight into the circumstances surrounding” incidents where deadly force is used,” Frey said. For example, some of the individuals who are involved in deadly force incidents are well known to law enforcement officials. Perhaps, additional intervention — from law enforcement and other entities — with individuals who are distraught or threatening violence could prevent situations from building into deadly encounters, sometimes days or months later.
The review will not replace the attorney general’s review of cases involving deadly force, which is narrowly tailored to assess whether — in the heat of the moment — the law enforcement officer thought the person she or he shot was otherwise going to kill or hurt the officer or someone else. Rather, this review panel will delve deeper into questions of standards and procedures and ask whether changes are necessary to minimize the use of deadly force.
Police use of deadly force, thankfully, is rare. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 1 percent of public contacts with the police end with the use of force.
But when such incidents do happen, they are traumatic to victims, their families and communities, and to the officers involved and their colleagues.
With this in mind, further minimizing such encounters should be a priority. This new review panel can help.