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What Is The Right Relationship Between The Police and Citizens?


Jumping off from Devens Hamlen’s post on Tuesday, HOW DO POLICE DASHBOARD CAMERAS EFFECT MAINE?, today Merritt Heminway continues the discussion of the relationship between police officers and the citizens of Maine.

As the police forces around the country are increasingly becoming “militarized” in terms of equipment, this is an important conversation to have. What is it that we want from our police? What is their fundamental role? What should that relationship with the citizenry look like?

Watch the video to learn what Heminway has to say.

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Below is a transcript of the video:

What Is The Right Relationship Between The Police and Citizens?

The general role of a criminal defense attorney in the system, in the criminal justice system is to pay attention, and to pay attention to each individual interaction between the police and citizens, because what we’ve seen particularly in recent years here across United States is that when people aren’t paying attention, when there’s not adequate defense counsel, monitoring these relationships as they come into the courts, gross violation of civil right sort of bubble up in Ferguson, Missouri or other areas around the country.

We’ve seen more of these recently and without exception each of the jurisdiction in which gross violations and civil rights sort of bubble up are places where there has not been strong public defenders offices, or places where there has not been strong criminal defense bar.  Because it’s really the job of attorneys like us to pay attention to that relationship, to look at every interaction between the police, and potential defendant and figure out what is the relationship between the police, and is it lawful or not.

Certainly the police can violate your constitutional rights, it’s been in the news an awful lot. The most tragic way they do that by committing violence against people. Of course when the police use violence there are extremely tight regulations and parameters on when it’s okay to do that, and when it’s not. 

Here in the state Maine one of the things that we’ve been seeing a lot lately, is the use of tasers. It feels I’ve heard an awful lot of cases on my desk lately of homeless people sleeping the wrong place, and being woken up by a police officer grumpy about being woken up, and then within a few minutes later, or a few seconds later being tased.

I’m not that functional early in the morning, and perhaps I’m rude, and extremely concerned that we’re seeing a pattern right now of excessive use of tasers. Tasers are marketed to police department as being a non-lethal alternative, and increasingly we’re seeing more and more evidence of their serious medical consequences to be zapped with the taser. Certainly concerned here is HH that we’ve been seeing more and more police interaction with citizens that involve tasers.

I think there’s been a lot of concern lately that local police departments have received an awful lot of military equipment and certainly many police officers are Veterans of Foreign Wars and come to the police department with military experience. There’s been a lot of awful lot of concern that perhaps the police interaction with the citizens has taken a turn for the worse in part because of that militarization of the police force.

When police officers are carrying military style weapons, there’s a concern that perhaps they’re interacting with the citizens, not in an appropriate police citizen interaction, but rather as a police officer, a warrior, not a police officer as a public servant. There’s certainly times where being a police officer is extremely dangerous.

There’s certainly times where a police officer needs to fire power to meet the crisis at hand. But we all know that far more common, when we ask our police to public servants, and to be there for us when we’re in need, to investigate minor crimes that happen living in the city. And to not instill extra fear in a community that they’re already being fearful of its surroundings. Absolutely we have big concerns about the militarization of the police generally, and we’re always watching carefully what those interactions are actually like.

Here in Portland, the things that’s been very beneficial to us is more and more use of video, more and more police departments here in Maine are using video cameras in their cruisers, also video cameras on the persons, and also more and more microphone associated with those videos, and so we’re able to see what those interactions between the police and the citizens are like more and more.

Often time those videos tapes have been extremely helpful in resolving criminal cases in our office all the time and we’re able to prevail in cases, get cases dismissed, and reduce punishment in cases, solely by what we’re seeing on cruiser camps or body camps. I’m a big supporter of more video tape.

I think it’s very helpful for everyone involved, the police, people who are accused of crimes and attorneys on both sides to figure out what actually happened, and to continue the larger public policy debate on what is the appropriate interaction between the police and the citizens in a modern republic.           

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