No charges against Maine authorities for death of handcuffed man who was hit in head with flashlight
Sep 8, 2023, 1:32 PM | Updated: 3:16 pm
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s attorney general concluded there was no criminal conduct when four law enforcement officers used a stun gun and beat a handcuffed man in the head with a flashlight while facedown on a porch in a death determined to be a homicide.
Jeremy Lau, 46, was erratic, violent and making unintelligible sounds while on drugs early March 1, 2022, when police responded to a report that he was trashing the home in which he’d been staying, state police said. Arresting officers used a stun gun on Lau twice and pummeled him while he was facedown, with one deputy striking him with a flashlight, including once on the head.
Police said Lau continued to resist them until he was placed in an ambulance, but witness statements showed a difference in perception of the threat with people inside the house saying he appeared to be motionless by that point, documents indicated.
The state’s chief medical examiner determined Lau’s death was a homicide but three troopers were exonerated by an internal investigation, officials said. The deputy who wielded the flashlight remains under investigation by the sheriff’s department.
The autopsy and investigatory documents were first obtained by Hermon resident Doug Dunbar under the state’s Freedom of Access Act. Dunbar, an activist, said he was interested in the case because of the intersection of law enforcement and mental illness. He noted that the documents suggested that Lau had a history of mental illness, in addition to substance abuse. “When law enforcement and mental illness come together, bad things happen on far too many occasions, like this one,” Dunbar wrote in a letter to state officials.
Lau, who was white, stopped breathing while state police officers and a deputy were arresting him for outstanding warrants and for vandalizing the Patten home, swinging a baseball bat indoors and armed with a knife before officers arrived, according to documents.
Officers delivered multiple blows after they said he resisted while facedown, according to documents. He remained facedown, secured to a board with a spit mask covering his face, when he was placed in an ambulance, where an emergency medical technician noticed he wasn’t breathing, the documents said.
The state’s chief medical examiner concluded Lau died from a cardiac event while being restrained facedown after Taser deployment and while under the influence of fentanyl, methamphetamine and a drug used for opioid addiction. Heart problems were a contributing factor.
Prior to their arrival, some of the officers were familiar with Lau. He’d been arrested before, and State Police Sgt. Chadwick Fuller, one of the officers, said he’d had encounters with Lau over “his whole career” spanning more than two decades. They knew of his drug use, and an ambulance was present to assist in getting treatment for him.
Some of the actions didn’t follow best practices.
Long before the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police knew that it was dangerous to put people in a prone position, especially after being handcuffed, because it can compromise breathing, based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice and International Association of Chiefs of Police.
And the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights ruled that striking someone on the head with a flashlight or baton or other hard object is prohibited “except where lethal force is authorized.” A deputy acknowledged hitting Lau multiple times with a flashlight, including once on the head because Lau used his legs to trap a trooper’s foot after being cuffed.
In an ideal world, responding officers might have a mental health professional or crisis intervention worker to assist when they were summoned for such scenarios, but many agencies don’t have those resources and they may not be available in the middle of the night, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the foremost policing think tank in the country.
Officers are encouraged to attempt to take a step back and deescalate in such scenarios — often involving family members — but that may not be possible when someone is out of control, he said.
“It’s frustrating for the family, for the cops, and for the individual who’s in some sort of crisis. It’s a no-win situation without an additional professional who can assist the police,” he said.
In this case, officers didn’t spend much time attempting to deescalate when Lau swung a pair of shovels, knocked out a porch light and told them he didn’t want help. He already had blood on his face, the documents indicated.
Two minutes after arriving, a deputy fired the first of two Taser shots, according to documents. The first shot was ineffective, but the second shot disabled Lau, according to documents.
The attorney general concluded there was no criminal conduct by law enforcement officers last month, and made it public this week after the investigatory documents were first reported by the Bangor Daily News.
None of the troopers were disciplined following an internal investigation, said Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “The investigation showed troopers involved acted in an appropriate manner given the difficult circumstances of arresting Mr. Lau who was at the time a public safety risk,” she said.
The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department said it’s conducting its own review, focusing on training, policies and procedures, after a deputy beat Lau with a flashlight. Officials said any resulting disciplinary actions would be made public.
One witness said she felt guilty because Lau, locked on the porch and unable to get inside, and fearful of the police, said, “Help me, help me.” She assured Lau that police were there to help him, not hurt him.
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