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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Trooper isn’t biggest reason mentally ill man was killed

    Mubarak Soulemane shouldn't be dead.

    He shouldn't have been shot to death by state Trooper Brian North in January 2020 as he sat in the car he had hijacked, boxed in by police cruisers under a highway overpass in West Haven after a long chase from Norwalk. The car's doors and windows were shut, and while Soulemane was holding a knife when he was shot seven times by North, he was in no position to harm anyone but himself.

    Police dashboard and body camera video gives the strong impression that the trooper had been overwhelmed by the adrenaline of the chase.

    At the trial in Milford Superior Court where he was acquitted of manslaughter last week, North testified that he considered Soulemane's knife an immediate threat to another officer. But that officer didn't fire, and North appears not to have expressed his rationale for firing to investigators at the scene of the incident, only much later after getting advice about the only defense in law that would be available to him.

    Nevertheless, the legal standard for use of deadly force by an officer is whether he reasonably could have thought that his life or someone else's was in immediate danger -- not that anyone actually was in danger, and criminal convictions must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Those requirements left North's jury plenty of room.

    The jury might not have wanted to ruin the trooper's life and career for anything less than a malicious act, even if police are not supposed to let themselves be overcome by adrenaline after a provocation. The jury especially might not have wanted to ruin the trooper's life and career on account of someone as chronically troublesome as Soulemane had been though he was only 19. The jury chose to see the incident as the trooper presented it: justifiable homicide.

    While the jury may have gotten only a simple assertion of Soulemane's troublesomeness arising from chronic mental illness, this may have been enough to build sympathy for the trooper.

    When Soulemane was killed four years ago his family members told news organizations that, while living in New Haven, they often had called police for help restraining him amid his violent outbursts and he had been taken to Yale New Haven Hospital at least 10 times.

    His sister told the Connecticut Mirror: "It was a constant battle: Mubarak versus schizophrenia." His brother told the Hartford Courant he always feared that the young man's life would end as it did.

    That is the bigger reason Soulemane shouldn't be dead.

    For his own family, while now lamenting the trooper's acquittal, foresaw perfectly well what was coming. Nothing worked for the young man but nothing effective was done to protect him or to protect society from him. He should have been placed in a locked facility long before he was killed.

    But policy in Connecticut is to let the chronically disruptive mentally ill run loose rather than make room for them in mental hospitals, of which the state now has few, just as state policy is to let repeat criminal offenders run loose and commit more crimes so elected officials can boast of reducing the prison population.

    Three weeks ago another chronically mentally ill young man was shot by state police in Bolton after threatening himself and family members with a knife and then threatening the responding officers. He has survived and will be released but probably won't be handled any more effectively than Soulemane was.

    The only consolation in the Soulemane case was the courage and integrity of Connecticut's new inspector general of police, Robert Devlin, who ably prosecuted North and established that the state now has an independent system for holding police to account. At least the case may remind officers that, tough as their work is, they must keep their adrenaline in check.

    Of course the case also should remind Connecticut of the necessity of keeping the chronics in check. But that isn't even on state government's agenda.

    Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. He can be reached at CPowell@cox.net.

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