Thursday, December 13, 2012

Press releases: Blown away

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I am, I admit, a frequent critic of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram — not because I dislike the paper, but rather due to my recognition of the importance of a vibrant, strong, active daily newspaper is to Maine and its largest city, and because I badly want the PPH to be that paper. And this week, I'm giving extreme credit where extreme credit is due: the Press Herald/Telegram truly impressed me with its massive Sunday package, "Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill," kicking off a four-day series that has not yet been completed as the Phoenix goes to press.
The series focuses on police shootings in Maine, with a particular focus on the disproportionate number of mentally ill and substance-abusing people who get shot, as well as the lack of accountability for police officers and agencies who fail to de-escalate situations that perhaps need not end with deadly force. (Though when mentally ill people go to prison, things aren't always much better, as our ongoing reporting shows.) ThePPH's work is powerful investigative, analytical, and narrative work — with multiple stories, an online database, and perspectives from all angles (except those, of course, who have been killed; in their stead stand relatives baring their souls in hopes no more unnecessary deaths occur).
Strong praise should go to the reporters whose bylines have appeared in the series so far: Tux Turkel, David Hench, Ann Kim, and Kelley Bouchard. And it should go as well to all the behind-the-scenesers (editors, copy and otherwise; layout artists; photographers; online production staff; as well as people whose work hasn't been published before this issue of the Phoenix is) who are carrying out this vital inquiry into the admittedly infrequent times when police come to end the lives of Mainers.
Rather than summarize its findings here, I urge you to read the reports and the accompanying editorial, which are available from a special section of the PPH's website, — though if you'll permit me a moment of criticism, that section could stand some serious organizing: a comprehensive index to all the stories in this package would be extremely useful.
They are extensively reported, personal, fact-driven stories showing tragic consequences of the fearsome power of police weaponry and training coming into contact with the equally fearsome power of a disturbed mind. For example, more than once have police been called to help family members contain and restrain a distraught relative, and ended up shooting the person rather than defusing the situation. The toll on the person (who does sometimes survive, but often is killed), the family who called seeking aid, and the officers involved is devastating. Learning more about these tragedies from all involved will help the public, the police, and policy leaders make our state, and our world, better.
In addition to praising the worker bees who are getting it done, it's very important to note that this sort of project doesn't happen without crucial support from the very top. Here's hoping that this is the sort of work we can see much more regularly under the leadership of newish owner S. Donald Sussman, brand-new CEO/publisher Lisa DeSisto (up last month from the Boston Globe), and executive editor (since February) Cliff Schectman.
Some cynics may grump at my praise (and the heapings from others across the state), saying this is the sort of reporting that newspapers should be doing regularly, and ask why anyone should get credit for doing their jobs. But denying praise for great work done well would be the worse offense.
• Lawmakers better get used to the sort of trackers Governor Paul LePage says he hates: the MAINE PUBLIC BROADCASTING NETWORK just announced a service much like C-SPAN, but for Augusta. For a six-month pilot starting in February, there will be video coverage of sessions in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well, possibly, as committee proceedings — and, obviously, press conferences and other artificial attention-getting events. While review from legislative leaders (and MPBN board members) remains incomplete, we can hope that improved transparency will find friends in all corners of the State House, and maybe, one day, in the governor's office itself.