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Perspective

Deadly force

A spate of police shootings of suspects raises unsettling questions.

Illustration by Ryan Huddle/Globe staff; Photo by iStockphoto

We have a gun problem in Massachusetts. It is in the squad cars as well as the streets.

Since June, at least seven suspects have been shot to death by local police or state troopers in the Commonwealth. The number might be higher. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety does not track fatal police shootings.

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Locales vary — East Bridgewater, Lynn, Danvers, Chicopee, Orange, Ashland, Quincy. Circumstances differ — after traffic stops, in high-speed chases, in private homes, on quiet residential streets. But the sheer volume of shootings in a single season suggests it is time for a serious public discussion about police use of deadly force in Massachusetts.

It is not a topic on any public agenda, given the esteem in which police are held in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and the absence of any state oversight. “Every department has its own policies and keeps its own records,” notes Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state’s Public Safety office.

Maybe the state should exercise more direct oversight.

Every police shooting triggers a pro forma probe by the local district attorney’s office, but how independent are investigations conducted by prosecutors who, by definition, are police colleagues? Add the public’s understandable disinclination to second-guess decisions made during tense standoffs with agitated individuals, and the default position becomes unconditional trust of police judgment. But there can be no good judgment without good training, and whether police are getting enough is, after the last four months, an open question.

Investigators already have exonerated police in two shootings, in Quincy and Danvers. Neither report addresses the quality of police training.

7: Estimated number of suspects shot to death by police in Massachusetts since June.

 
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The circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting at about 8 a.m. on June 14 of 41-year-old Wilfredo Justiniano Jr. of New Bedford “leave no room for doubt. The action of this Massachusetts State Police trooper was in self-defense and was justified as a matter of law,” according to Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey’s report.

Justiniano’s long history of mental illness and suspicion of police were well documented by New Bedford police but unknown to the state trooper summoned by a motorist who saw Justiniano pull to the side of Route 28 in Quincy in apparent distress. By the time the trooper arrived, according to the final report on the shooting, Justiniano had been “spinning in the roadway near his vehicle, wildly swinging his arms” and was “jumping up and down and screaming.” He claimed to be an undercover cop and told the trooper to shoot him or he would kill the trooper. He was allegedly armed with a pen.

When Justiniano failed to comply with orders to calm down, the trooper fired pepper spray. It only made Justiniano more agitated, yet the trooper sprayed him again. When Justiniano continued to “lunge” at him, the trooper twice fired his service revolver after rubbing his eyes because, the report noted, “the wind caused some of the second blast of spray to contact the trooper’s face, causing his own vision to be compromised.”

When Justiniano was on the ground, a second trooper who had arrived at the scene — with at least four other troopers and two Milton firefighters — fired pepper spray again to subdue the mortally wounded man.

Might the outcome have been different had the trooper waited for backup to arrive before confronting a man described as “delirious” by the good Samaritan who originally called for police assistance?

Similar questions arise in many of the fatal police confrontations this summer.

Why did Ashland police on July 2 choose to confront rather than negotiate with a barricaded Andrew Stigliano even after the lawyer for the 27-year-old man warned them he was sending text messages from inside his apartment, vowing not to be arrested alive on a domestic violence warrant?

Why were three Lynn police officers on September 5 unable to secure their weapons from an agitated Denis Reynoso, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran whom police shot and killed after, they said, he reached for one of their service revolvers in his town house, where they had responded to reports of a disturbance?

Why, even after learning that Scott Kehoe had informed a friend he intended to commit “suicide by cop,” did police on August 23 not find a less lethal way to handle the outnumbered 37-year-old home invasion and assault suspect, who used a kitchen knife to threaten five Danvers police officers, two state troopers, and a police dog?

Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett concluded that Kehoe’s refusal to drop the knife — even after one trooper got a superficial cut on the arm and an officer shot Kehoe in the leg — “put those officers in imminent danger thus justifying their use of deadly force to protect themselves and others.”

Blodgett’s contention that “these officers had to make split-second decisions in a rapidly changing situation” only underscores the problem. Shouldn’t police be trained to cope with exactly such volatile conditions without resorting to deadly force? If the death toll this summer proves nothing else, it shows just how common these situations are — and how many questions still need answering.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Eileen McNamara, a former Globe columnist, teaches journalism at Brandeis University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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