2015-02-13 / Front Page

Police chief defends policies

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In the wake of recent complaints about the so-called militarization of the police, South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins has addressed his department’s policies on use of force, as well as its collection of Taser units and surplus military equipment

At a city council workshop Jan. 26, City Manager Jim Gailey said Googins was invited to speak before the council “because of things that have happened nationally,” including widely publicized uses of fatal force by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and on Staten Island, in New York City. Both incidents have sparked national protests.

However, locally, the South Portland Police Department has been taking heat for several weeks over its recent acquisitions.

On Nov. 17, the city council accepted a $2,500 gift from Portland Pipe Line to the police department to purchase Taser units.

That prompted some of the council’s usual gadflies to question the pipeline’s motives.

“This is not really a good gift, (Tasers) can be abused quite badly,” said Buchanan Street resident Eban Rose, at the Jan. 21 council meeting. “And what is their interest in getting Tasers to our police department? This is the same company, may I remind you, that has threatened to sue the city and continues pestering to do so.”

That lawsuit came, as predicted, on Feb. 6. However, Googins said Portland Pipe Line only gave his department the cash. It was his decision how that money was spent.

South Portland police officers began using Tasers in 2003 and now every officer carries one. The purchase was simply meant to replace older units, Googins said.

“This technology is very useful in gaining and maintaining control of a subject who is actively resisting,” he said.

According to Lt. Frank Clark, he and five other department trainers receive 20 hours of teacher training on the Taser units every two years. All officers get six to eight hours of initial training on the units, plus must undergo annual recertification that includes written testing and physical deployment.

“Other than when they put FM radios 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,” said Clark, a 27-year veteran of the department.

Referring to the Staten Island incident, Googins said his department does not train or condone the use of chokeholds. However, that does not mean an officer would necessarily be dismissed for using one.

“A chokehold could be used if it is a deadly-force situation and the officer is fighting for his life,” Googins said.

The chief also said that while his department has “nearly 100 policies” that govern officer actions, as well as various interactions with the public, for some things, there can be no hard and fast rules.

“It’s almost impossible to tell you when an officer can use deadly force, except to say when his life or the life of a third party is in imminent danger,” he said. “These are decisions that are literally made within split seconds and literally run the gamut. To say either a Taser is appropriate, or a firearm is appropriate, or a chokehold is appropriate just relies on far too may factors.”

However, Googins said police officers on Staten Island were not armed with Tasers, as local officers are.

“A Taser may have saved his (Eric Garner’s) life,” Googins said

The department also has taken heat since the Ferguson riots over its acquisition in September 2013 of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, which are designed to remain intact after rolling over an improvised explosive device like the ones used against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftover and unused units have been distributed through the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office to local police departments nationwide as those operations wind down.

The MRAP has also come under recent fire from residents.

“I really think the city council ought to have some oversight over the police department in this regard,” said Greg Lewis of Mussey Street, at the Jan. 21 council meeting. “Granted, bad things can happen, but the odds of us needing a tank are slim to none.”

Googins said the MRAP was deployed twice last year, once in early spring and again in late June. Both incidents, the first on Wells Road in Cape Elizabeth and the second on Main Street, involved a person who had barricaded himself in a building and had fired shots at police, and both ended with the suicide of that person.

Googins said the MRAP is not armed and would not be used for crowd control in the event of a peaceful demonstration or even, he intimated, an unruly one.

“The circumstances for that being deployed during a civil unrest or – let’s call it what it is, a Ferguson-type incident – in the handling of that or any protest or demonstration, the amount of force or the type of our tactics would totally depend on what we are up against,” Googins said. “But it would never be our intention to escalate any situation. I would be very reluctant to deploy that during a demonstration.”

Asked if his department might post its policies online for public view, Googins said some could be, but others would be “heavily redacted” because they contain tactical information.

“We don’t want to signal to the bad guys exactly how we’d respond to a bank robbery, for example,” Googins said.

In the end, the council declared itself satisfied that the public airing by Googins satisfied recent inquiries by residents.

“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,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I think folks just want to know that it’s the other way around. I think the concern is that folks want to make sure that (Chief Googins is) driving the program and the policy and that the toys are not driving the program and the policy.”

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