South Portland police chief explains use-of-force, weapons policies

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Police Chief Ed Googins on Monday gave the City Council an impassioned presentation on department protocol and standards, particularly regarding response to group demonstrations, and when and how to exert force.

He also parried criticism about the Police Department’s acquisition of surplus military equipment.

In the wake of two widely publicized instances involving fatal use of police force – one in Ferguson, Missouri, and the other on Staten Island in New York City – Googins said the use and misuse of force “has the potential of rocking a community to its core.”

“It can also expose some very real vulnerability in the local community’s capability to handle these events,” Googins said, “which can develop into rowdy, violent and riotous behavior.

“No police chief wants to see the scenes we’ve seen, showing police engaged in violent confrontations with the very citizens they’re sworn to protect.”

Googins said the deaths in Missouri and New York have fostered growing levels of “mistrust of police in certain communities.”

This mistrust “erodes police-citizen relationships throughout the country, and yes, even here in our city, even though we may seem to be well-removed from all of the conflict,” he said.

While the 53-member South Portland Police Department has not dealt with riotous situations or unruly group demonstrations in recent months, citizens have publicly complained to the City Council about two specific issues: Portland Pipeline Corp.’s donation of $2,500 to the Police Department in November, which was used to purchase two Tasers, and the acquisition of a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, last year as a hand-me-down from the Department of Defense.

Evan Rose, of Buchanan Street, in chiding the department’s possession of the MRAP and its use of Tasers, compared the situation in South Portland – what he called the “current deployment of military hardware for small-town police,” or the “militarization of Mayberry” – to a “dystopia,” more specifically, the police state depicted in “The Hunger Games” books and films.

“It should be obvious to all of us that South Portland has no tactical use for an MRAP, but we already have one, so now what?” Evans asked the council, before proposing that the piece of equipment be transformed into a stationary piece of art. 

Councilor Claude Morgan told Googins, “I think the concern is that folks want to make sure that you are driving the program and the policy and that the toys are not driving the program and the policy.”

“I think the concern is that we will become part of a stream of militarized gear that’s just going to come down to us through this funnel and that that’s going to change the way we do business and the way we choose to police,” Morgan said. “I think folks want to know that it’s the other way around.”

Googins said the MRAP is an “essential piece of equipment for a tactical team.”

“It is an armored vehicle, it has no weapons. The vehicle is intended to be deployed during tactical situations, high-risk situations, to evacuate, to protect the officers, to provide essentially an opportunity to handle a situation more peacefully,” he said.

As for citizens being fearful of how the armored vehicle will be used, Googins said “I’m not going to say it’s not unwarranted when you don’t understand how our police departments operate.

“The circumstances for that being deployed during a civil unrest or, let’s call it what it is, a Ferguson-type incident, the handling of any protest or demonstration, the amount of force or the type of our tactics, would depend totally on what we are up against,” he said. “While I can’t say that it would never be deployed, it certainly would not be deployed for a peaceful protest.” 

Tasers, if deployed correctly, the chief said, are designed to be used in place of gunfire or lethal force. The South Portland Police Department has been using them on a limited basis since 2003, he said, and no deaths have been reported or attributed to their use.

“A Taser may have saved (Eric Garner’s) life (on Staten Island),” Googins said.

The most times a Taser has been used in a calendar year since 2003 is seven, Lt. Frank Clark told the council. In 2013, the department deployed Tasers six times out of nearly 37,400 calls for service.

“Other than when they put FM radio and air-conditioning in the cruisers, (Tasers) definitely rank right up there with some of the best options and technology that we’ve seen since coming on the job,” Clark said.  

Unlike other methods of police force, Tasers can and are used on unarmed individuals “quite regularly,” as long as that individual is “actively resistant,” Googins said. 

As for the use of deadly force, if an officer feels that his or her life is in imminent danger, any means necessary is allowed to be taken, Googins said, even if the department doesn’t necessarily condone the means.

“We do not allow or train choke holds,” he said, “but a choke-hold could be used if it is a deadly force situation and an officer is fighting for his life.”

The use of force “is governed by many factors that are oftentimes out of control for the officer who’s going to have to use it,” Googins said. “… It’s almost impossible to stand here and tell you when to use deadly force, except to say when his life or the life of a third party are in imminent danger.”

At the end of the day, the chief said, “It’s not how big (police officers) are, it’s not how smart they are, if they can shoot a gun, or if they know the many things that will be expected of them to do as an officer. To me, it’s much more basic: Can they relate to people? How do they react under stress? How are they compassionate?”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.