Facing a loaded gun, Maine police have few options
By David Hench
(Portland, ME) - The moment a bank employee called police to say a man with a rifle was pacing the shopping center parking lot, police braced for the worst. A potentially distraught and irrational gunman in a crowded public place is a recipe for tragedy. Officers quickly arrived at the suburban plaza - less than a quarter-mile from the town's police station - and got more bad news. They were unable to communicate with the gunman. Sixty-year-old James Levier was deaf, and he was prepared to die.
What followed was an hourlong standoff that ended at just past 4 p.m. when Levier twice made the sign of the crucifix, and pointed his gun toward a group of officers crouched behind cruisers. Four officers fired at Levier, killing him.
The tense stalemate and its bloody conclusion are a stark example of the increasingly frequent and violent confrontations police encounter. Although most armed standoffs end without injury, the Scarborough shooting also demonstrates the unpredictable nature of such episodes.
"Your initial concern is to isolate and control the threat," said Portland Deputy Police Chief Tim Burton, a former commander of Portland's special reaction team. "The one thing that can't be controlled 100 percent is the actions taken by the person posing the threat."
Several tactical team commanders and police officials said they would not comment specifically about the Scarborough shooting, but said the public should understand what police do when a gunman threatens public safety, and what police cannot do.
To many people, straining for a view of the scene, James Levier was a small figure far away, hardly threatening. Some scooted past police tape to get a better view.
But police were sensitive to the threat. Their training and experience alerted them to just how lethal a rifle can be, and how quickly a standoff can become deadly.
"I think experience brings you to the point where you don't under-react to these types of situations," said Sgt. Richard Golden, commander of the state police tactical team. "I've probably been to 500 tactical calls in the state of Maine. A lot of those have been very violent situations, and you become educated about what to expect."
Officers say they are responding to a growing number of dangerous situations. The state police tactical team was called out 48 times last year compared to 35 times in 1999.
"Our number of calls has increased over the years and the violence of the calls has definitely increased," Golden said. "One thing the public needs to recognize is that this person is not the same person you knew yesterday. It's not rational to take these actions and people in these situations are extremely unpredictable."
When police respond to an armed person, they typically confine the threat by setting up a perimeter and then evacuate nearby areas. Then, they try to communicate with the individual to bring about a peaceful solution.
"If he's deaf, that would be a major problem . . . just getting close enough to communicate with him," Sgt. Maria Burdwell, head of the mental evaluation team for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a member of the hostage negotiating team.
Police say as southern Maine becomes more diverse they are finding more occasions where people in crisis do not speak English and language becomes a barrier to communication. For police, that can mean searching out interpreters at the scene, summoning someone or, if a telephone link can be established, using an AT&T interpreter service.
Police have lists of interpreters for both language and deafness, as well as mental health workers they can call on to assist in negotiations. But it takes time to put those resources in place.
"There's over 50 languages spoken in Portland," said Lt. Joseph Loughlin, who is current commander of the city's special reaction team. "We don't have an interpreter in the back of the cruiser who speaks all of them."
Scarborough police had summoned an interpreter fluent in sign language to help them communicate with Levier, but were grappling with how best to use her. She could see Levier but needed binoculars to see what he was signing. He could not see her.
Police were reluctant to let her get close.
"We were deriving a plan on how we could try to get her in a position where she could communicate," Scarborough Chief Robert Moulton said the day after the incident. "We couldn't just walk her out there without a plan, without any concern for her safety and well-being."
Police had outfitted her with a bulletproof vest but were still nervous about using her because she would need to be close and exposed in order to sign to Levier. Police say they use civilians to communicate with armed suspects only as a last resort. They must ensure the civilian's safety and, also, they lose some control of the negotiation, which can exacerbate a situation.
"I can't imagine putting somebody who hasn't had any training in a position where the despondent person has the ability to harm them," said Sgt. Todd Bernard, who is commander of South Portland's special reaction team.
Police in Scarborough were still grappling with that problem when Levier leveled his rifle at the police perimeter.
"It's not like TV where you get in a couple of dialogue lines before you shoot," said Burton. He illustrates the point by shaping his fingers like a handgun pointing up into the air. As he slowly brings it down, he asks "When do you shoot?" and a moment later, with his finger pointing straight ahead, says: "If you wait till I pull the trigger, who loses?"
Police also shoot to instantly immobilize the person threatening police or others with a gun. They aim for the center of the person's torso. Shooting to wound someone is impractical, ineffective and dangerous, police say.
"This is not surgery," said South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins. "You cannot put this round wherever you want."
Also, the human body is resilient, and injuring a person does not necessarily impede his ability to fire his gun.
"Bullets do not immobilize or incapacitate people unless they strike one or two very specific parts of the body," Burton said. "Otherwise, the bullet does not limit the ability of the threat to do harm."
The Portland Police Department is reviewing nonlethal mechanisms for dealing with standoff suspects, including beanbag-like projectiles that are the equivalent of punching a person. But similar to nonlethal gunfire, if a gunman is not incapacitated by the projectiles, it could make the situation worse.
Police say another increasingly common challenge faced by police nationwide is a phenomenon called "suicide by cop" in which a person determines to end his life by forcing police to shoot him. Police and friends of Levier said he expected to die in his encounter with police.
If an armed person is intent on getting shot, police have few options. And that can be traumatic for police officers.
"They say that 85 percent of officers who are involved in these things have some sort of emotional trauma and about a third have severe reactions," said Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood.
The four police officers who fired on Levier - three Scarborough officers and one state trooper - were placed on administrative leave pending the conclusion of the attorney general's investigation into whether the use of deadly force was justified. Witnesses say Levier fired a shot, though police now reserve comment until the Attorney General's Office finishes its investigation. That report should be released in about a week.
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