October 20. 2013 6:22PM

John F. French: NH needs better laws on deadly force by police officers


Is New Hampshire overrun with dangerous criminals? Is it dangerous to leave our homes to go to the store? If not, then why are there so many police shootings? When are police legally and morally justified in shooting one of us?

State law intends legal justification to be when an action must be taken to save the life of the officer or a third person. That seems to be moral. The attorney general and police interpret the law to be whenever the officer encounters a person that cannot be easily controlled. That does not seem to be moral.

Killing people is a moral wrong and a crime except when in self-defense, by a war combatant, or by court order after due process of law, with the latter reserved for the most heinous crimes. In addition to self-defense, police have the responsibility of defense of a third party. Have all the police shootings in the last several years fallen under one of these categories?

Due process by definition requires a court proceeding. Police are not war combatants, so that leaves only self-defense. Have the shootings been for self-defense or defense of a third party? The Attorney General’s Office always finds that so.

Police are trained how to make a traffic stop. They do not receive morals training. That is left to the individual’s philosophy and religious affiliation.

We commonly hear that an officer has only a split second to make the decision to shoot. I submit that the officer actually makes the decision to shoot long in advance of the incident, weighing three inputs: 1) training received, 2) state statutes justifying deadly force, and 3) individual moral or religious beliefs. When he is in a situation that matches all three of these inputs, he shoots.

Of these three inputs, the only one we the people have any control over is state statutes. If we want to limit shootings, we have to restrict the situations state statutes justify.

RSA 627:5, section II, paragraph 1 is being used to justify shooting mentally distraught, often suicidal people, many in their own homes, others during traffic stops. It has justified the following police shootings: Charles Turcotte, Feb. 2, 2010, domestic dispute; Larry Minassian, 51, Jan, 6, 2011, suicidal person with knife (survived); Wayne Martin Jr., March 2, 2011, revocation of conditional discharge from N.H. Hospital (shot for not taking his meds); Shelly Naroian, 47, May 19, 2011, domestic dispute; Christopher D. Seksinsky, 39, June 27, 2011, domestic dispute; Alberto Pagan, 21, Oct. 22, 2011, domestic assault; Jason Lagueux, July 9, 2012, domestic disturbance; Grant Hebert, Oct. 28, 2012, motor vehicle pursuit (survived); Steve Amazeen, 45, Dec. 3, 2012, suicidal (survived); Geoffrey Bidwell 42, Jan. 6, 2013, suicidal; Christopher Varagianis, 37, June 3, 2013, motor vehicle offense (survived).

There have been a few suspected criminals shot also; James Breton 50, May 7, 2011, wanted for sexual assault charge; Larry Albert Bohannon 51, March 29, 2013, armed robbery suspect; and now Wendy Lawrence 45, Sept. 30, 2013, motor vehicle offense.

RSA 627:5 is too vague, and the attorney general is the wrong person to be making these justification decisions. The person who has been shot has a right to due process even if it is too late to change having been shot. The statute should be refined to make it clear that shootings should happen only in defense of self or others, and the “likely to seriously endanger” and “using a deadly weapon” sections need to explicitly exclude allowing an officer to use his car or body to block a vehicle and then claim self-defense.

Due process requires that every police shooting be publicly presented to a Superior Court judge and be prosecuted by a special prosecutor appointed by the governor and Executive Council.

Killing is irreversible. Police need the authority to keep the peace, but our statute on the use of deadly force needs to be changed to restrict their use of deadly force to a level that reflects the non-violent reality of New Hampshire.

John F. French VI live in Contoocook.