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Report of Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Rumford Police Sergeant in Rumford on March 18, 2014
July 29, 2014
On March 18, 2014, Jessica Byrn-Francisco, 25, was shot and wounded by Rumford Police Sergeant Tracey Higley during an armed confrontation outside Ms. Byrn-Francisco’s residence in Rumford.
In the late afternoon of March 18, 2014, Jessica Byrn-Francisco, 25, of Rumford called her counselor to report that her ride to a next day counseling appointment had been cancelled. Upset and frustrated over the cancelation, Ms. Byrn-Francisco told her counselor that she had consumed all of her anti-anxiety and sleep medication in attempt to kill herself. The counselor kept Ms. Byrn-Francisco on the line and called the police. Officer Brad Gallant of the Rumford Police Department was dispatched to the call. Officer Gallant knocked on the door of Ms. Byrn-Francisco’s apartment but, despite being able to hear a woman talking inside the apartment, received no response. He discovered the apartment door was locked and his requests to the woman inside to open the door went unheeded. Officer Gallant was joined by Sgt. Tracey Higley. Both officers were familiar with Ms. Byrn-Francisco in that they had answered prior calls in response to her attempts at suicide. Unable to persuade Ms. Byrn-Francisco to open the door to her apartment, Sgt. Higley unsuccessfully attempted to summon the landlord to open the door. Sgt. Higley was concerned that the effects of the prescription medication presumably ingested by Ms. Byrn-Francisco may have rendered her unconscious. Sgt. Higley forced the door open and he and Officer Gallant entered the apartment. They observed approximately 30 empty prescription medication capsules. It appeared that the contents of the capsules had been emptied into a glass of water and that very little water was left in the glass. Ms. Byrn-Francisco was not in the apartment, but the officers noticed an open window at the rear of the apartment. In the meantime, the counselor called the police again and reported that she was still talking with Ms. Byrn-Francisco, who told the counselor that she had left the apartment through the open window. The counselor also told the police that Ms. Byrn-Francisco told her that she was feeling very weak and tired and was experiencing difficulty breathing, information that led the counselor and the police to believe that Ms. Byrn-Francisco had indeed ingested the prescription drugs. Sgt. Higley checked the area of the nearby Rumford Memorial Bridge, while also requesting assistance from a Mexico police officer in searching for Ms. Byrn-Francisco. The town’s ambulance service was also in the area looking for Ms. Byrn-Francisco. Officer Gallant found footprints leading away from the open window of the apartment into the backyard. The backyard of the apartment building is fenced-in and the rear portion of the yard slopes steeply downward. The yard had approximately two feet of accumulated snow in it. Officer Gallant located Ms. Byrn-Francisco sitting on the ground under a deck attached to the residence. She was still talking on the telephone with her counselor. Officer Gallant attempted to talk with Ms. Byrn-Francisco, but she ignored him and told him to leave her alone. Intending to take Ms. Byrn-Francisco into protective custody, Officer Gallant grasped Ms. Byrn-Francisco’s arm and attempted to pull her up from her seated position. He was unable to do so. Officer Gallant attempted again by clutching the hooded sweatshirt Ms. Byrn-Francisco was wearing and pulling her up. Once on her feet, Ms. Byrn-Francisco displayed a folding knife that was in the closed position. When Ms. Byrn-Francisco stepped out from under the deck, the knife was open with the blade exposed. Officer Gallant retreated, dropping his handcuffs in the deep snow. He ordered Ms. Byrn-Francisco to drop the knife, but she ignored the order. Officer Gallant attempted to tase Ms. Byrn-Francisco but the tactic was ineffective when one of the projectiles failed to make contact. Having heard Officer Gallant announce that he had located Ms. Byrn-Francisco, Sgt. Higley started walking toward the backyard. As he was walking, he heard the arcing of Officer Gallant’s Taser. As Sgt. Higley entered the backyard, he observed Ms. Byrn-Francisco with the knife in her right hand. As he approached her, he shouted for her to drop the knife. At this point, Ms. Byrn-Francisco’s attention was drawn away from Officer Gallant and toward Sgt. Higley. Officer Gallant used the opportunity to retreat onto a nearby deck, which now placed a railing between Ms. Byrn-Francisco and him. Ms. Byrn-Francisco ignored several requests from Sgt. Higley to drop the knife. He also employed his Taser, but the attempt was likewise unsuccessful. Officer Gallant then unsuccessfully attempted to “drive stun” Ms. Byrn-Francisco from behind with his Taser. Ms. Byrn-Francisco approached Sgt. Higley with the knife still in her hand. Sgt. Higley drew his pistol and attempted to walk backwards in the deep snow, losing his footing several times in the process. Sgt. Higley issued commands for Ms. Byrn-Francisco to drop the knife as she continued to advance toward him. She responded with expletives, and said “go ahead and shoot me.” Sgt. Higley, still walking backwards, began to lose his footing and stood at the edge of an embankment that dropped about six feet. Ms. Byrn-Francisco ignored the multiple commands to drop the knife and continued to advance on Sgt. Higley. Sgt. Higley reminded Ms. Byrn-Francisco of their previous encounters by saying he could help her again and that he did not want to have to shoot her. Ms. Byrn-Francisco stated “do it,” and continued to advance on Sgt. Higley with the knife in her hand. Sgt. Higley fired two shots from his service weapon, a .40 caliber handgun. Both shots struck Ms. Byrn-Francisco, who fell to the ground with the knife still in her hand. Officers continued to give commands for her to relinquish the knife. They eventually approached her and disarmed her. Later investigation determined that Ms. Byrn-Francisco had advanced to less than 15 feet from Sgt. Higley when she was shot. Emergency medical personnel were already on scene. They treated Ms. Byrn-Francisco and transported her to the Rumford Medical Center from which she was transferred to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Eight days later, she signed herself out of the hospital. She was later charged by the State Police with the Class C crime of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, a case that remains pending in the Oxford County Superior Court. Detectives from the Office of the Attorney General went to Rumford to investigate the incident. They were assisted by State Police detectives and evidence technicians.
Analysis and Conclusion
The Attorney General is charged by law with investigating any incident in which a law enforcement officer uses deadly force while acting in the performance of the officer's duties. The sole purpose of the Attorney General’s investigation of the incident in Rumford was to determine whether self-defense or the defense of others, as defined by law, was reasonably generated by the facts so as to preclude criminal prosecution of Sergeant Higley. The review did not include an analysis of potential civil liability, of whether any administrative action is warranted, or of whether the use of deadly force could have been averted. Under Maine law, for any person, including a law enforcement officer, to be justified in using deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others, two requirements must be met. First, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is imminently threatened against the person or against someone else, and; second, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is necessary to counter that imminent threat.
Whether the use of force is reasonable is based on the totality of the particular circumstances and must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The analysis requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each case, including the severity of the crime threatened or committed and whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of others.
Attorney General Janet T. Mills has concluded that at the time Sergeant Higley shot Ms. Byrn-Francisco, he reasonably believed that unlawful deadly force was imminently threatened against him. It was reasonable for Sergeant Higley to believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect himself from deadly force. Sergeant Higley acted reasonably in the defense of himself. The Attorney General’s conclusions are based on an extensive scene investigation, on interviews with numerous individuals, including Ms. Byrn-Francisco, and on a review of all evidence made available from any source.
FOOT NOTES 1 In particular, Sgt. Higley and Officer Gallant were the officers who responded to a prior incident in which Ms. Byrn-Francisco was talked out of jumping off the Rumford Memorial Bridge. In addition, Sgt. Higley was aware of a prior incident when a Rumford police officer responded to a suicidal call, forced open the door, and found Ms. Byrn-Francisco unconscious in her bathroom; later investigation determined that she had attempted suicide by ingesting prescription medication. Moreover, of 30 Rumford police contacts with Ms. Byrn-Francisco since 2007, 13 were related to suicide attempts either with edged weapons or drug overdoses. In each of these incidents, Rumford police officers responded and rendered aid.
2 Sgt. Higley asked emergency medical personnel arriving at the apartment to determine the nature of the medication purportedly ingested by Ms. Byrn-Francisco. The medics entered the apartment and observed approximately 30 capsules that had been broken open onto a coffee table, as well as a glass of water on the table. It appeared to them that the contents of the capsules had been mixed into the glass of water and substantially consumed. One of the medics called a physician and learned that at least one of the drugs identified by a prescription bottle label was an antidepressant with a high probability of death if consumed in large dosages.
3 Some Taser models have a "drive stun" capability where the Taser is held against the target without firing the projectiles, and is intended to cause pain without incapacitating the target. This is done by activating the Taser and placing it against an individual’s body. This can be done without a cartridge in place or after a cartridge has been deployed.
4 Later investigation disclosed that Sgt. Higley issued 11 separate commands for Ms. Byrn-Francisco to relinquish the knife.