Although it happened more than three decades ago, law enforcement officials in Maine might summon the name Henry Schmersal Jr. these days when hearing a suspect has died after police applied a chokehold.

Schmersal was subdued by a Mexico police officer who had chased him into the woods to arrest him for a driving charge on Oct. 2, 1989.

A medical examiner later determined the cause of death was due to neck compression during the arrest.
The case went to grand jury, but the officer involved was never indicted.

Yet, that incident led to the ban in the use of chokeholds and neck restraints in Maine law enforcement.

Recently, demonstrators have taken to streets nationally and in Maine to decry the killing of a black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the hands of a police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Chants of “I can’t breathe” fill the air at rallies, marches and protests, repeating the words uttered by George Floyd shortly before he died with his face pinned to the pavement.

Around the country, as in Minneapolis, calls for defunding police and major reforms of law enforcement are taking hold.

In Maine, issues around excessive use of force and racial bias have been largely addressed through state law and mandatory minimum standards, according to police chiefs and sheriffs in central and western Maine and the acting director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Most agency heads point to a statute aptly named “physical force in law enforcement” for guidance.

It says that an officer is justified in using a “reasonable degree of non-deadly force” on someone when it’s necessary to arrest that person or keep them from escaping from custody.

It also allows for that same level of force in self-defense or in defense of another person who is being arrested or has attempted to escape custody.

The use of “deadly force” is allowed “only when the officer reasonably believes such force is necessary” for self-defense or defense of a third person against the imminent use of unlawful deadly force.

The statute goes on to say that deadly force can be used by an officer to make an arrest or prevent the escape of someone the officer reasonably believes has “committed a crime involving the use or threatened use of deadly force, is using a dangerous weapon in attempting to escape or otherwise indicates that the person is likely to endanger seriously human life or to inflict serious bodily injury unless apprehended without delay.”

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley speaks to the news media at a press conference earlier this year. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley said his department doesn’t authorize the use of chokeholds or “neck restraints” and doesn’t instruct its officers in their use.

O’Malley said his officers, like those at most of the mid-sized and larger departments, undergo training at the hands of several in-house Maine Criminal Justice Academy-certified instructors on use of force.

The instructors train the officers to attempt to resolve issues using verbal directions, O’Malley said.

During an initial confrontation, the officer would allow an alleged offender to surrender to arrest.

Before using any physical force, the officer is taught to assess the situation, plan a response, then respond appropriately, a process called the “force continuum” or “situational use-of-force,” O’Malley said.

After assessing the situation, the officer will observe the suspect’s behavior and consider tactical possibilities.

The officers are told that de-escalation can occur at any time, which is moving downward on the situational use of force options that start with:

1. Officer presence; then
2. Verbal commands;
3. Control and restraint;
4. Chemical Agent;
5. Impact Weapon;
6. Electronic Weapon;
7. Police Canine; and lastly
8. Deadly Force.

Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen at a press conference last year. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Citing his department’s policy, Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen said that in giving police officers the legal authority to use force to protect the public welfare, “a careful balancing of all human interests is required.

At times officers are confronted with situations in which control is required to affect an arrest, to protect the public or to ensure officer safety, he said. Every attempt will be made to achieve control through advice, warnings or persuasion.

“When resistance to police action or a threat to life or safety is encountered, however, police officers have a duty to exercise their authority and to use physical force to protect themselves and the public they serve. An officer may use only that physical force that the officer reasonably and actually believes is necessary to effectively bring an incident under control while protecting the officer or another,” he said.

Moen said his department’s use of force policy is reviewed each year by every officer as a part of mandatory training. They are trained every other year on the mechanics of arrest, restraint and control.

Over the past week, his officers attended an eight-hour training block on de-escalation, aimed at teaching first responders de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques, Moen said.

The training uses the most current and evidence-based intervention techniques. De-escalation training teaches the first responders how to use verbal communication as a strategy to gain tactical control of a situation.

Moen stressed this training “is not in response to recent events” in Minnesota, he said, noting it had been scheduled to be held in mid-May, but was postponed due to the pandemic.

“We try to be forward thinking as much as possible,” he said. “While we may not be able to control what happens at the national level, we can certainly affect what happens at the local level.”

Moen said chokeholds and neck restraints are not taught to Auburn Police Department officers.

“Our officers are trained within the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s so-called ‘Mechanics of Arrest, Restraint and Control.’ This specific curriculum does not train the officers in the use of chokeholds and neck restraints. Officers may only use tactics they have been trained in.”

Similar to training and policies of Maine law enforcement officers in the use of force, policies addressing racial bias appear to be uniform across departments.

Lewiston Police Department’s police policy says that “bias-based profiling and/or any other discriminatory practice by members of the Lewiston Police Department is strictly prohibited. Accordingly, race, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation shall not be the sole basis for the detention, interdiction or other disparate treatment of any person by members of this department.”

Race profiling can’t be used to make a vehicle stop or determine probable cause for an arrest, according to the Lewiston policy.

The training of officers about racial profiling issues may include field contacts, traffic stops, search issues, cultural diversity, discrimination, etc., the policy says. Moreover, “diversity and sensitivity training shall be designated for those members with sustained bias-based profiling or other sustained discrimination complaints filed against them,” according to the Lewiston policy.

Auburn Chief Moen said his department, like Lewiston’s, prohibits the use of bias-based profiling “in traffic contacts, field contacts, and in asset seizure and forfeiture.”

He said his department defines “bias-based profiling as the targeting an individual(s) based solely on a trait common to a group for enforcement action. This includes, but is not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, socioeconomic status, age, national origin or ancestry or any other group identifier.

“We recognize that we have a diverse demographic in our community, that our delivery of services must be impeccable, and that bias-based policing has no place in our organization. All our staff members undergo training in bias-based profiling issues on a biennial basis.”

In 2019, his officers received one-hour training blocks on the following subjects: implicit human biases — bias-based policing; policing culturally diverse community and awareness of cultural diversity.

Every year, Deputy Chief Timothy Cougle carries out a documented administrative review of department practices and citizen complaints/concerns received to ensure that illegal or biased-based profiling isn’t occurring in the department, Moen said.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said his department has civil rights officers who are trained by the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of civil rights violations, including racial profiling.

Lt. Christopher Wainwright before he was elected sheriff of Oxford County in November 2019. Sun Journal 2018 file photo

When force, other than normal hands-on physical contact, is used by a law enforcement officer in Maine, a report detailing the incident is sent to the academy and the Attorney General’s Office each year, Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright said. Deadly force cases resulting in death are investigated by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

Complaints of excessive use of force are investigated internally by the department where that officer works and a copy of the report is sent to the academy and possibly the Attorney General’s Office for a follow-up investigation.

“To my knowledge, we haven’t had any excessive use of force complaints” since he became sheriff two years ago, Wainwright said.

O’Malley said his department posts on the city’s website all complaints brought against officers, including the nature of the complaint and its final disposition.

Strict protocols outline the disciplinary process for officers accused of a violation that might result in disciplinary action, including union representation.

The Twin Cities’ police chiefs and county sheriffs said they haven’t seen instances of unions fighting to keep officers on the job who shouldn’t be.

“We have a very good working relationship with our unions” Moen said. “There are processes in place to safeguard the rights of our employees. Our employees understand our commitment to our core values of loyalty, excellence, honor and professionalism.”

Sheriff Eric Samson at his desk in the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s office in Auburn in April. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Samson said: “Nobody hates bad cops more than good cops.”

The law enforcement heads also said they’ve seen many changes to departmental policies over the years, all aimed at improving the quality of the service they provide to their communities.

“You can see that the trends have changed not only in society, but in law enforcement as well,” Wainwright said.

The beating of Rodney King in 1991 at the hands of Los Angeles police sparked riots, but also changed policing policies, Wainwright said.

“That changed how we did certain tactics, how we looked at things, how things are reported,” he said.

It also led to layers of civilian review committees, including in Maine, he said.

“I know certainly when I go up to Augusta and listen to testimony, we really listen to what the legislators are saying and the people who come in to testify. We do adjust our policies and training after looking at those things.”

Franklin County Sheriff Nichols could not be reached for comment.


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