PORTLAND (AP) – The shooting death of a 29-year-old South Portland man by police has focused attention on how police deal with somebody who’s suicidal.

Even with extensive training and department policies on how to handle somebody who’s in a mental health crisis, officers and medical personnel never know how such situations might turn, police said.

The circumstances can change so fast that officers’ reactions can’t be scripted, said acting Portland Police Chief Joseph Loughlin. Fortunately, police usually succeed in defusing suicidal situations in a peaceful manner, he said.

“Things change dramatically in moments, not even seconds,” Loughlin said. “You can write all the plans and policies you want. You can do what-ifs and how-comes forever.

“But the reality of the circumstance that’s presented to you at the time are things we’ve often never seen and are totally unpredictable. There’s no time for reflection or thought. You have to react.”

Michael Norton was fatally shot early Monday after South Portland police were called to his home to check on him. Police had taken Norton to a hospital psychiatric unit Saturday after family said he threatened suicide, but he checked himself out the following day.

Sunday night, police were again called to Norton’s home because he was threatening suicide. This time, the situation was complicated by the fact a woman was inside with Norton, and the department’s special-reaction team set up a perimeter while trying to persuade Norton to come out.

The woman left the house at 1:38 a.m., and Norton came out a short time later. He was reportedly holding a knife, but it’s unclear exactly what happened before the shooting.

A video of the incident shows Norton emerging with his hands by his sides. Police can be heard shouting for Norton to “drop the knife.” In the final frame the station aired, Norton had raised his arms so that they were out to either side.

The state medical examiner’s office has ruled that he died of a gunshot wound to the neck and jaw.

Many police officers in Maine have gone through a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training program, which is offered in collaboration among the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health agencies and the Portland Police Department.

At least 15 of South Porltand’s 52 officer have participated in the training, which trains police to identify mental health crises and defuse confrontations without anybody getting hurt.

Portland Sgt. Robin Gauvin is supervisor of the program and became the first officer trained in the state in 2001. The training, he said, is a tool in an officer’s box, but not “the silver bullet.”

“The theme is, we want to de-escalate the people, try to get them to a safe place,” said Gauvin. “We don’t want to do anything in this program that would go against the officer’s safety, and them doing their job as they’ve been trained to.”



Information from: Portland Press Herald, http://www.pressherald.com

AP-ES-08-28-08 1207EDT


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