The case of Michael Grendell raises important questions — and many of them have nothing to do with the bomb-carrying robot.

Grendell, 62, was seriously injured last year at the conclusion of a standoff with state police at his home in Dixmont. After a 20-hour stalemate during which Grendell fired a gun inside the house, he was driven from his home by an explosion delivered by a remote-controlled vehicle. Carrying a gun, he was shot three times.

Grendell has now filed suit in federal court against 18 members of the state police and one member of the attorney general’s office. He argues they violated his constitutional rights by acting with “reckless disregard.”

The incident is believed to be the first time a robot has been used in such a way by police in Maine, though they have been deployed elsewhere by law enforcement. Their use represents an escalation in tactics and certainly raises legitimate questions.

But the incident is more about mental health than the use of technology. Grendell was psychotic and delusional at the time of standoff, a state forensic psychologist testified last year.

The lawsuit also says a tactical team from New Hampshire trained in dealing with mental health crises was just 15 minutes away and Maine State Police had requested their help.

Ultimately, though, police rigged a robot with explosives and moved it toward Grendell’s home. The Bangor Daily News reports that the intention was to knock a hole in the wall, but the explosion blew out the first floor of the home, bringing the roof down.

Grendell emerged from the wreckage carrying a firearm. When he wouldn’t put it down, police shot him in the face and torso. In a plea deal, Grendel was given a suspended sentence and time served — the 38 days he spent at a state psychiatric hospital.

The use of the robot-carrying bomb makes this incident stand out, and it should raise questions about the right way to deploy such tactics. Certainly, explosives shouldn’t be used on a whim or in any ad hoc way. There should be policies, procedures, training and testing; the effect of the explosion should not be a surprise to law enforcement. But robots could be useful in ending dangerous situations while keeping officers safe, and a blanket ban on them is not warranted.

But take away the robot, and this case looks like a lot of others. Police are called to the scene, a standoff ensues, the subject makes a move that appears to threaten lives, and police use deadly force.

The question then is not whether deadly force is legally justified — every police shooting recorded in Maine has met that threshold. The question is whether the need for deadly force could have been avoided.

Police de-escalate a lot of these kinds of crises effectively. Many we don’t hear about; some we do.

But when they don’t — when a mental health crisis is treated as a crime, and a sick person as a criminal who wants to hurt others — it is a tragedy, and we should ask questions with the goal of avoiding such tragedies in the future.

A state task force on police shootings in January recommended wider access to mental health care and crisis intervention training for all officers. Both recommendations should be followed.

And a law passed by the Legislature this year established a panel that will critically evaluate police procedures in any shooting. The panel should help police departments understand how mental health crises escalate, and how to give officers the tools to prevent that from happening.

 

 

 


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