Law enforcement should consider use of long-range, nonlethal weapons

Friday, March 2, 2007

I want to encourage and support friends and family of Sgt. James E. Dean to seek answers to the questions that persist around his fatal shooting during the 14-hour standoff with local and state police last Christmas. My sincerest sympathy goes out to Sgt. Dean’s relatives, friends and co-workers for their loss.

The sudden and unusual circumstances surrounding his tragic death, the lengthy multiple investigations and the perception of a lack of clear communication and callous treatment from the sheriff’s department has certainly magnified the pain and suffering of those close to Sgt. Dean. Hopefully, when the answers are provided to your questions, you will be able to move forward with the grieving process.

Other quiet, overlooked victims of this tragic confrontation are law enforcement officers who participated in this unfortunate situation, especially the scene commander and the state police sharpshooter who shot and killed Sgt. Dean. Public safety personnel — police, firefighters and rescue workers — at times are exposed to and are part of horrendous emotionally wrenching human tragedies. Event debriefings are held for these types of situations to address the negative emotional and mental health fallout that public safety employees and volunteers experience in their professions. Even with debriefings, counseling and other efforts to lessen the impact of stress on law officers, they suffer from high rates of alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence.

Obviously, the job they do is not easy. From the front-line sheriff’s deputies and state troopers to middle and top leaders, I want to thank every law officer for their sacrifice and service to the community.

Although I strongly support law enforcement, I have questions of my own about the Christmas standoff. Clearly, this depressed and severely troubled young soldier engaged in provocative actions.

My questions relate to:

* Integration of nonlethal weapons into the sheriff’s office arsenal.

* Use of appropriate mental health expertise in standoff situations.

* Increased training and exercise simulations for deputies and troopers in standoff situations.

I know that local law enforcement officers have short-range, nonlethal weapons such as billy clubs, pepper spray and Tasers. But do the sheriff’s office or state police have medium- or long-range nonlethal weapons?

I am urging police agencies to supplement existing weaponry by adding medium- to long-range nonlethal weapons as well as training in their use.

In future standoff situations, these longer-range weapons might have a better chance of ending such standoffs without the tragic death of a troubled citizen. Perhaps the use of high-pressure fire hoses could be utilized in the interim until the sheriff’s office is able to obtain long-range nonlethal weapons.

Hopefully, wider community planning will include not only law enforcement personnel, but senior staff from the Mental Health Authority of St. Mary’s County, Walden, and representatives of the volunteer fire departments. Appropriately trained and credentialed mental health personnel can provide useful insights, suggestions and guidance for police negotiators in life-or-death standoff situations.

Hopefully, these suggestions will lead to greatly improved procedures and options for dealing with the next standoff situation.

Daniel G. Donahue, Mechanicsville