In January, Gov. Janet Mills released a report that she commissioned as attorney general reviewing the use of deadly force by police. Based on a review of 10 chosen cases, the report made several recommendations for police training around such issues as mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and crisis intervention.

The press release caught my eye because I had direct experience with issues of deadly force as a state legislator in 2009. A constituent of mine approached me because she had lost a teenage son in a 2007 Waldoboro police shooting and wanted to tell her story. Steven Rowe, the attorney general at the time, had recently ruled that the law enforcement officer in that case was justified in using deadly force.

It was the 75th such case reviewed by the attorney general’s office over the years, and 100 percent had been ruled justifiable — a streak that continues to this day.

While we appreciate how dangerous a police officer’s life can be, there is reasonable doubt in the public’s eye that every one of those cases has been justifiable. That is because the attorney general’s review process is greatly misunderstood by the public.

It is not a wide-ranging inquiry. As per Maine law, only two questions are asked in determining whether the officer was justified in using deadly force for self-protection or protection of others; Did the officer reasonably believe he or she was imminently threatened with unlawful deadly force? And did the officer reasonably believe that using deadly force would counter that threat?

The attorney general’s review does not comment on what led up to that moment. Nor does it comment on training, supervision, backup, alternatives to escalation, or other issues.

Moreover, the process is considered by skeptics to be potentially biased in that one branch of law enforcement is reviewing another branch.

Thinking about the circumstances of my young constituent’s death, I wished that there had been a deeper look. No question he was a troubled kid, 18 years old, who made mistakes that night when he ran into the woods, away from a routine police stop. No question the reserve policeman, somewhat out of shape and young himself at 24, made mistakes when he ran after him into the dark woods, alone. They were both kids. It was a tragedy for both parties.

Two legislators, myself and Rep. Donald Pilon of Saco, submitted legislation in 2009 to establish a panel, which would include community representatives as well as law enforcement, to take that deeper look into shootings that result in deaths. The bill received extensive media coverage and a surprising amount of editorial support, but was defeated in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

While we didn’t achieve what we set out to do in the bill, the elevated public discussion that ensued resulted in an increase of training requirements for reserve officers. The press coverage of that case revealed a very troubling fact to the public: A part-time officer could legally carry a gun and apply deadly force after only 100 hours of training.

Consider the absurdity of that when training requirements for hair stylists are 1,200 hours and a minimum of a two-year associate degree is required for veterinary technicians. Neither of those professions is given the life-and-death authority to exert deadly force, a power unique to the police profession.

Our legislative effort made a small but important improvement in the system but it took a controversial bill and widespread media coverage to make that small change. Then-Attorney General Mills responded at the time, “One of my goals will be to make the reports from my office more understandable to the public and answer some of the questions that the public may like to see addressed.” The January 2019 report from the attorney general’s office was a beginning.

We live in a time when police shootings in other states, justified or not, have resulted in intense community scrutiny. Can we be more proactive in Maine and enable a level of incident review that involves community members as partners? Can we recognize that there is a professional response to such deaths but also a community response? I believe we can structure a formal conversation between law enforcement and the people they serve that can build understanding about the circumstances around these tragic deaths.

By doing so, the attorney general’s office will genuinely solicit and understand “the questions that the public may like to see addressed.”

 

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

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