It’s time to replace the oversimplified appraisal system now in place to determine whether police officer-involved shootings are justified.
The most recent decision by the Maine attorney general’s office regarding the death of Chance Baker in Portland last year confirms the inanity of how the system determines fault when a police officer takes a life in the line of duty.
Baker was 19 at the time of the shooting, which took place in Portland’s Union Station Plaza parking lot in February 2017. The troubled teen was foolishly aiming a recently purchased BB gun in the air and had a blood alcohol content three times the legal limit. The gun, which featured a scope, resembled a high-caliber rifle, and responding police were worried Baker was about to become a mass shooter.
While Baker’s reckless actions certainly brought about his own demise, did the officer who claimed the young man’s life by shooting Baker in the head really need to aim so lethally? How about maiming the man? Why the need to aim for the skull? I understand that police almost always need to aim to kill so a shooter doesn’t have any chance to return fire, but since this occurred in a parking lot with few people near Baker, simply maiming him in the leg, for example, probably would have neutralized the situation and allowed Baker to see his 20s.
According to last week’s news reports of the attorney general’s decision, there have been 154 officer-involved shootings in Maine since 1990, and the AG has concluded that lethal force was justified in every instance. It’s not just Maine; this is a nationwide trend. The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, has made the nation take note of this record. The police, according to the state bodies that investigate officer-involved shootings, are nearly always justified in everything they do.
The Washington Post has been tracking police-involved shootings since 2015 with surprising results: Armed white men, not black men, are most frequently shot dead by police. About 1,000 people are killed by police nationwide per year, a rate that holds steady year after year. And the shootings are occurring at twice the rate previously recorded by the FBI.
Part of me hates hearing these facts. Part of me appreciates hearing a decision that clears an officer. I want to presume every police officer knows their stuff, especially when it comes to discharging lethal force. I want to believe the thin blue line between the law-abiding public and complete anarchy has excellent training that prepares them for wise decision-making. I want to fully trust the brave men and women who protect us. But I also know there are bad apples and incompetence in every line of work. It’s this nagging part of me that feels at least one of those 154 Maine shootings were less than justified – and perhaps it was this one involving Baker.
Of course, we’ll never know how the officer felt at the time of the Baker shooting. We’ll never know what the victim was thinking (or, should I say, not thinking because he was so drunk). But it seems shooting a man in the head was literally overkill and not the best option. The officer may have been justified in shooting Baker to stop him from being a danger to the public, but if he had the skill to hit Baker in the head – a sure death blow – he could have just as easily fired a non-lethal shot.
We can’t turn back time on this or any other unfortunate shooting. I feel for the officer who must live with his decision for the rest of his life, as well as Baker’s family, who will live without their son for the rest of theirs. Police officers have a tough job and I wouldn’t want it, so I hate to question their actions and heat-of-the-moment reactions. But since we can’t seem to avoid these officer-related shootings since it’s a part of their job, the attorney general’s office should alter how it deems whether a shooting is justified or not.
Just as in many aspects of life, there are shades and degrees. This officer may have been justified in shooting, but not justified in killing. The AG’s findings should have concluded as much. Rather than an all-or-nothing approach when determining justification, there should be a scoring system to allow for degrees of fault. Doing so might assuage family grief and show the general public that the system isn’t completely rigged – 154-to-0 in Maine – in favor of the officer.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.