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USM Students Rally to Protest Police Violence in Wake of Eric Garner Decision

PORTLAND, Maine - A New York grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in connection with the death of a black man who'd been put in a choke hold has sparked protests across the nation - including Maine.

Students at the University of Southern Maine are organizing a rally at 6 p.m. tonight in downtown Portland, and on Sunday the NAACP and others are also planning a march. The events come just 10 days after a similar protest against police violence, prompted by the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.
Rachel Talbot Ross is president of the NAACP's Portland chapter. She says the weekend's protests are meant, not as a criticism of local law enforcement agencies, but as a gesture of solidarity with the thousands of others across the nation speaking out against police violence.

"We want to add our voice to the rest of nation's call for justice and an end to the proliferation of violence," she says.

When former police administrator Mark Dion saw the cell phone video of Eric Garner being taken down by New York police officers, one thought came to his mind: "It was a mess."

Dion, who now serves in the Maine Legislature, had a lot of experience arresting people - he spent 21 years with the Portland Police Department, where he ended up deputy chief, and also served as sheriff in Cumberland County. "I can recall events where we had to struggle with individuals out on the street who just didn't want to submit to an arrest," he says.

But Dion says the choke hold used on Eric Garner was outlawed many years ago here in Maine. "Back in the 70's, I saw choke holds employed," he says, "but I think it became quickly known in the profession that it was a technique that could lead to death, and therefore there was a ban that eventually matured across the departments not to employ that technique."

Dion - who's also a practicing attorney - says law enforcement officers today learn a number of other physical tactics to deal with people resisting arrest - but there's one problem: "The trouble with the judo moves - and I'll put it in that plain English just so we can all understand - they're great when you're being trained, and they last for a few months after you leave the academy," he says, "but if you don't do it every day, if you don't practice the techniques every day, they evaporate from your toolbox and you fall into doing whatever you feel is necessary to gain control of the suspect."

Tom Porter: "Do you think that police everywhere, including Maine, could do with being regularly kept up to speed and up to training on these kinds of techniques?"

Mark Dion: "I think there isn't a chief in Maine that would resist the idea of training. But as a practical matter, there's no more expensive endeavor for a police agency to undertake than expanding their budget. I think any chief that you could call today would say, 'I would love to do more training in this topic area or subject matter.  However, my dollars are limited.' And, often, chiefs have all they can do from a budget standpoint to meet the basic required training hours for certain subjects that the state says is mandatory."

Serving Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck says his officers undergo refresher training in defensive tactics every one to two years. The first techniques they're taught, he says, are non-physical. He describes it as "verbal judo."

"Communication skills, de-escalation skills - those are the skills that we focus on primarily," Sauschuck says.

Sauschuck says only if this approach fails would officers put their hands on a suspect, avoiding the neck.