PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s attorney general concluded there was no criminal conduct when four police officers used a stun gun and hit a handcuffed man in the head with a flashlight while he was facedown on a porch and it was a murder.
Jeremy Lau, 46, was acting erratically, violently and making unintelligible noises while under the influence of drugs early March 1, 2022 when police responded to a report that he was vandalizing the home where he had been staying, state police said. The arresting officers used a stun gun on Lau twice, striking him while he lay face down. An officer struck him with a flashlight, including once in the head.
Police said Lau continued to resist until he was taken to an ambulance, but witness statements showed a different perception of the threat, as people in the house said he appeared to be motionless at the time, documents show.
The state’s chief medical examiner concluded Lau’s death was homicide, but three police officers were exonerated by an internal investigation, officials said. The deputy who carried the flashlight remains under investigation by the sheriff’s department over the incident in the tiny northern Maine community of Patten.
The autopsy and examination 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 between law enforcement and mental illness. He pointed out that the documents indicated that Lau suffered from mental illness in addition to substance abuse. “When law enforcement and mental illness come together, bad things like this happen far too often,” Dunbar wrote in a letter to state officials.
Lau, who was white, stopped breathing while state troopers and a deputy arrested him on outstanding warrants and for vandalizing the home by brandishing a baseball bat inside the home and arming himself with a knife before officers arrived, the filings say documents.
According to the documents, officers delivered several blows after they said he fought back while lying face down. As he was taken to an ambulance, he remained strapped face down to a board with a spit mask over his face, where a paramedic found he was not breathing, the documents say.
The state’s chief medical examiner concluded that Lau died of a heart attack while being held facedown after the Taser deployment and was under the influence of fentanyl, methamphetamine and an opioid addiction medication. Heart problems contributed.
Before they arrived, some of the officers knew Lau. He had been arrested previously, and state police Sgt. Chadwick Fuller, one of the officers, said he had encounters with Lau “throughout his career,” which spanned more than two decades. They knew about his drug use and an ambulance was on scene to help with treatment.
Some of the measures did not correspond to best practices.
Long before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in 2020, police knew that putting people in a prone position, especially when handcuffed, was dangerous because it can impair breathing, according to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs emerges from the police.
And the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights ruled that hitting someone in the head with a flashlight, baton or other hard object is illegal “unless deadly force is authorized.” An officer admitted to striking Lau several times with a flashlight, including once in the head because Lau used his legs to trap a police officer’s foot after he was handcuffed.
In an ideal world, responders might have a psychiatrist or crisis intervention worker on hand if they were called for such scenarios, but many agencies don’t have those resources and may not be available in the middle of the night, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the police Executive Research Forum, the country’s leading police think tank.
Officers are advised to take a step back and de-escalate in these situations, which often involve family members. However, that may not be possible if someone gets out of control, he said.
“It is frustrating for the family, for the police and for the individual who is in crisis. Without an additional specialist who can support the police, the situation is hopeless,” he said.
In that case, officers didn’t spend much time de-escalating as Lau brandished two shovels, turned off a porch light and told them he didn’t want help. According to the documents, he already had blood on his face.
Two minutes after arriving, an officer fired the first of two Taser shots, according to documents. The first shot was ineffective, but the second shot incapacitated Lau, according to documents.
The attorney general concluded last month that there was no criminal conduct by police officers and made it public this week after the Bangor Daily News first reported the investigative documents.
None of the officers were disciplined following an internal investigation, said Shannon Moss, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “The investigation found that the police officers involved acted appropriately given the difficult circumstances surrounding the arrest of Mr Lau, who posed a risk to public safety at the time,” she said.
The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department said it is conducting its own review focused on training, policies and procedures after a deputy hit Lau with a flashlight. Officials said any resulting disciplinary action would be made public.
A witness said she felt guilty because Lau, locked on the porch, couldn’t get in and was afraid of the police, saying, “Help me, help me.” She assured Lau that the police were there to help him to help and not to hurt him.
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