A statewide police association plans to start raising more than $100,000 a year to help defend Maine officers who may be charged with crimes or sued for conduct on duty, a response to high-profile shootings in other states that led to charges against police.

Dubbed the Sentinel Program, the new legal protections provided by the Maine Association of Police started Oct. 1 for its nearly 1,000 member officers. To pay for the services, the group will increase weekly dues starting in January from $9 to $12, with $1 of the added cost going toward administration.

The added legal services are partly in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in May and the charging of four Minneapolis officers involved soon thereafter, as well as the widespread social uprisings and scrutiny of police conduct that followed.

Paul Gaspar, the group’s executive director, said leaders have considered expanding legal services since at least 2018, but the effort took on new urgency after Floyd’s death and the swift charges brought against the four officers involved.

“Whether it be because of public perception, whether it be because of political constituencies or political pressure, there was an overriding need to depart from the normal process and go right to a criminal process for an indictment of the officer,” Gaspar said.

“Normally there is an extensive investigation, which can take an incredibly long amount of time,” he said. “If you believe an officer has committed a crime, they should receive no less due process than any other person who comes into contact with the criminal justice system.”

Cameron Brewer of Biddeford, a member of Black Lives Matter Maine, said the legal defense strategy is hurtful and shameful, and shows how the Maine Association of Police was not listening to what tens of millions of Americans, including thousands in Maine, demanded of their public servants after the death of Floyd in May.

“I think that it’s telling that after a summer’s worth of protest over the need for real police reform, instead of engaging with the communities that asked for those changes, they’re instead codifying and reaffirming their ability to resist prosecution for any kind of extreme actions on their behalf,” Brewer said. “I think if that’s the response, it’s clear they’re not interested in engaging with the community in good faith, and instead they’re trying to protect their interests.”

Police should instead acknowledge that systemic racism is an issue baked into the founding of our nation, including a history of racist oppression by police, Brewer said.

Black POWER Maine, another anti-racism advocacy group that has called for policing reforms, declined to be interviewed for this story.

MAINE OFFICERS NOT IMMUNE

It is extremely rare for police in Maine to be charged for on-duty conduct, but the true number is unknown because there is no way to track such cases.

More common are civil cases filed against police, which often follow police shootings, serious uses of force or other critical incidents.

Most times, the municipality’s insurance company pays to defend the department and the officer in such civil cases. If the court finds that the police officer violated someone’s rights, the municipality or its insurer – not the officer – pays the money judgment under a doctrine known as qualified immunity.

The Sentinel Program would add an attorney to look out for the officer’s interests specifically, Gaspar said. If an officer’s employer declined to defend the individual, the MAP lawyer could be the only one.

The Maine Association of Police, a collective of smaller unions, has historically paid for attorneys to negotiate labor contracts and handle employment-related disputes. The Sentinel Program will provide a range of additional legal services, from workers’ compensation claims to disciplinary cases before the Maine Criminal Justice Academy board of trustees to criminal or civil cases.

And while such cases are rare here, Maine police also are facing more scrutiny.

After video of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis pinged around the world and drew near-instantaneous condemnation, millions of people marched in cities across the U.S. to call for an end to systemic racism, and for states to enact new forms of police oversight, including reining in the use of deadly force.

Maine legislators, in response, are expected to take up some of those police reforms and racial justice issues in the next session.

Advocacy groups also are pushing for more oversight, and question the way Maine investigates fatal encounters with police.

“Police officers are entrusted with incredible power, and if they abuse that power they should be held accountable,” said Emma Bond, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “The best way to protect officers and the community alike is to avoid the use of excessive force in the first place – by divesting from excessive policing, investing in community treatment and programming, and improving officer training,” Bond said.

BACKLASH ADDS TO PRESSURES

Tracey Higley, 52, a sergeant in the Rumford Police Department and a vice president at the Maine Association of Police, said he’s heard firsthand from officers who fear the consequences of being involved in a deadly shooting now following the death of George Floyd.

“’It’s never a good time to have to be involved in an officer-involved shooting, but now, I absolutely don’t want anything to do with that. Can you imagine? I hope that nothing happens,’ I’m hearing that more and more.”

Higley, who is eligible for retirement this month, said he would hang up his duty belt immediately if he could make the finances work.

“I am not sad that I am on the back end of my career, as opposed to just starting,” said Higley, who is currently training a 22-year-old officer who joined the department in recent months.

He also lamented the public criticism police endure after they shoot or injure someone in a critical incident, a pressure he knows personally.

In 2014, he shot a suicidal woman twice after she ingested a large amount of prescription medication, and armed with a knife, advanced on Higley and refused to comply with commands to stop. The woman survived and was later charged criminally in the incident; Higley was cleared of any wrongdoing.

“I was run over the coals in social media, and (by) people talking, and I couldn’t defend myself,” Higley said.

WATCHING NATIONAL TENSIONS

Around the country, each state handles the investigation of police shootings differently.

In Minnesota, the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest – including Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes – were quickly fired and charged with murder.

Less than two weeks later, a police officer in Atlanta killed Rayshard Brooks, after Brooks ran from two officers and fought with them when they tried to arrest him on a charge of driving under the influence.

A struggle followed, and an officer shot Brooks after less-than-lethal measures failed to subdue him. The officer who fired the fatal shots, Garrett Rolfe, was fired from the Atlanta Police Department within hours of the killing, and another officer who participated in the arrest was placed on administrative leave.

Gaspar said some Maine cops fear the same could happen here, and suggested legislators could exert pressure to bring charges.

“What you have seen (in other states) is before that investigation is even started, there is a rush to have some type of criminal injunction done,” Gaspar said. “And it just seems that there’s a huge gap in that use of due process.”

Rep. Thomas Harnett, D-Gardiner – who sits on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Maine Attorney General’s Office, and who ran the office’s civil rights division and was employed there for 27 years – dismissed the notion that legislators would bring pressure during an ongoing case.

“That is certainly not our role or function, and there is no legislature I know (of) that would want to deny someone their due process rights, especially on the Judiciary Committee,” Harnett said.

INVESTIGATIONS PENDING IN MAINE

In Maine,  the Office of the Attorney General investigates all uses of deadly force by police, which are mostly shootings. Investigators probe whether the use of force was justified based on a set of legal standards that takes into account the officer’s perception at the time of the encounter.

State law permits officers to use deadly force in self-defense or in the defense of others if the officer reasonably believes the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent threat of deadly force from being used on the officer or someone else. Police are also permitted to use deadly force in an attempt to make an arrest of a person who they reasonably believe has committed a crime involving the use of or threats to use deadly force. Officers must first attempt to identify themselves and their intent to make an arrest.

In recent history, the Maine Attorney General’s Office has never found an officer’s use of deadly force to have been unjustified.

Gaspar said police have an “incredible amount of confidence” in the attorney general’s process, but he fears that power could be handed to district attorneys and lead to undue public influence on a legal process. The attorney general in Maine is chosen by the Legislature, while district attorneys are elected by voters.

His fear is based on a June statement by District Attorney Natasha Irving, who has threatened to charge a former Waldoboro reserve police officer who shot and killed an 18-year-old, Gregori Jackson, in 2007 if the Attorney General’s Office does not reopen the case, which has not occurred.

A spokesman for the AG’s Office provided a statement affirming its commitment to follow a fair, just process when investigating deadly police encounters. But it’s unclear what measurable effect, if any, the recent groundswell of national support for police reforms will have on how the agency decides cases.

There is a backlog of 16 deadly force investigations in Maine dating to May 2018 that still are not complete. Police shooting investigations are open-ended and there is no mandate for the office to complete investigations in any period of time.

“The purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the facts reasonably generate a case of self-defense, including the defense of others, or is otherwise legally justified under the Criminal Code,” the spokesman, Marc Malon, said in an emailed statement. “The investigations and the subsequent legal analysis take as long as necessary to arrive at a legally correct determination.”


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