They were white, male and armed, and – almost to a person– were experiencing mental health crises.

Most of them had ingested drugs or alcohol and were known to be violent. They lived in rural communities, isolated from support and mental health resources.

All were shot by police, some fatally, their cases the subject of the first substantial annual report by a panel charged with evaluating police shootings in Maine.

The Deadly Force Review Panel delivered its report and recommendations to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Monday.

The 15-member panel recommended changes in police policies and practices and suggested a new law to hold responsible people who transfer or sell guns to those they know are prohibited from possessing them.

Although the Attorney General’s Office already reviews each police shooting to determine if it was legally justified, that review does not ask why shootings occur and what forces aligned to bring a person into deadly conflict with police.

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“I do think the panel’s obligation as we continue to learn and evolve is to ask why,” said co-chair Vendean Vafiades, a former deputy attorney general and chief judge of the District Courts. “Why did this happen? Why did law enforcement feel threatened? Why did they do what they did? What happened beforehand, why did they do it at the time, and how can we keep that from happening?”

The panel’s chief recommendation is to expand and deepen the relationship between police and crisis agencies, mental health providers and community support organizations, especially in rural communities. Small, rural police departments, the panel said, should be trained in connecting people to crisis services, and those mental health providers should be reaching out regularly to police so that they work together to avoid violent confrontations.

The presence of weapons, most often a firearm or what police believe to be a firearm, is a major factor in police decisions to shoot, the panel said.

“It’s really important. In most of these cases, if this person did not have a firearm, did not shoot that firearm, did not brandish that firearm, they would be alive or uninjured,” said Francine Garland Stark, co-chair of the panel and the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The panel said that authorities should set new, statewide minimum standards for how all police agencies in Maine respond to a person in a mental health crisis. The standards should require police chiefs to survey available mental health resources and train officers in how to connect people with them, even if their departments don’t have the funding for full-time mental health liaisons.

CURTAILING ACCESS TO FIREARMS

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It also urged lawmakers to make it a Class D crime to knowingly sell or transfer a firearm to someone who is prohibited from possessing one because of a past felony conviction or a protection from abuse or harassment order.

Laws that seek to curtail access to firearms generate near instant backlash, and Stark and Vafiades were well aware of that.

“It’s a really difficult conversation and we’re being really careful in talking about it,” Vafiades said. “It’s not a blanket statement about the gun issue, it’s about the escalating result of access. What is a law enforcement officer supposed to do when they’re confronted with a gun?”

The co-chairs said it is difficult to assess whether interactions between police and mentally unstable people have improved over the years, largely  because there is no system in place to examine situations that did not result in a tragedy.

“We don’t see the ones that go well, we see the ones that go badly,” Vafiades said. “Even when there are these bad outcomes, we see law enforcement officers do a tremendous job de-escalating situations.”

The panel urged lawmakers to consider expanding and diversifying its membership, which is mostly male, all white and dominated by law enforcement. They also asked legislators to fund a staff person to assist with research and fact-gathering.

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For years, Maine has used a similar group of law enforcement and policy experts to provide a hindsight review of domestic violence homicides, said Stark, who sits on that panel as well. Those reviews have driven changes in state law and are part of the state’s strategy to reduce domestic violence, which is linked consistently to about half of all killings statewide.

Stark said the same structure of rigorous review would help police learn how to avoid future shootings and sharpen their ability to intervene and reach people before they become desperate.

“The fact that these common characteristics and themes of these cases have remained constant … is an indicator that we need to have some better attention to community-based mental health, especially in rural Maine,” Stark said. “One of the cases we reviewed, the person had gone the previous day to a hospital where they had been promised a rehab bed – and when they showed up for that rehab bed, that was given to someone else. And that was that critical moment in that person’s life, to have had intervention and (the police shooting) wouldn’t have happened.”

COMMON DENOMINATORS

In the 10 cases the panel analyzed, every person shot by police was a white man armed with a deadly weapon, and all but one suffered from a mental illness, often depression and suicidal thoughts. Two of the 10 explicitly said they wanted to be killed by police. Most had ingested alcohol or drugs before they were confronted by officers. All had prior criminal records and most had been violent in the past, especially toward family members or romantic partners.

Since at least 1990, every single police shooting in Maine – more than 170 in all – has been deemed legally justified by the Office of the Attorney General. The determination of legal justifiability centers on whether an officer reacting in the moment perceived that there was an imminent, deadly threat to himself or others and acted in an objectively reasonable way, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

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The Deadly Force Review Panel is the latest attempt to critically examine police shootings in Maine. It was created by statute in 2019, and has a mandate “to identify compliance with accepted and best practices under the particular circumstances and whether practices or procedures require adjustment or improvement,” but cannot second-guess whether a shooting is justified.

The panel’s report acknowledged the high societal cost of deadly police encounters.

“The human and financial resources (expended) in law enforcement personnel, equipment and support services to address these dangerous situations is enormous,” the report says. “Individuals often lose their lives and law enforcement officers and the public are placed in danger.”

Departments should develop policies and protocols for dealing with someone who wants to commit “suicide by cop,” the panelists said, and expand training on how to de-escalate confrontations before police decide to shoot.

BETTER COORDINATION IN RURAL AREAS

In rural areas where police departments frequently rely on each other to respond to calls, there should be better coordination as emergencies unfold, the panel recommended. Agencies should develop agreements and coordinate with each other to reduce cross-talk and confusion. Police also should make plans to consolidate how information about an incident is conveyed to the officers who are responding so that everyone goes into a situation with similar context.

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The panel does its work confidentially. Its meetings are not open to the public, and it relies on more complete information than what is often provided to the public to make its assessments. Its reports are given to the legislative committee and filed in the state archives without a public-facing access point online, but access to their reports may become easier in the future, the co-chairs said.

The panel urged the Attorney General’s Office, which investigates police shootings, to adopt a standard checklist for how it investigates incidents, which panelists are still developing.

The report also recommended that the criminal justice board come up with a universal standard for how tactical teams use armored vehicles during standoffs. In one case the team evaluated, a man who barricaded himself in a home shot at the armored vehicle police had deployed, and told a 911 dispatcher he believed he was under attack. In another case a man in “extreme crisis” was killed when he aimed a weapon at an armored vehicle.

The new written policy should “balance the utility of the vehicle with the effect of its use or presence in a situation, especially when interacting with persons in mental health crisis,” the report said.

“We’ve seen (police) use bad judgment, as well, and put themselves at risk and escalate things in an instant, often because they’re making split-second decisions,” Vafiades said. “So it’s difficult. One of the things we try to do in our look back at what happens after an incident is pushing local law enforcement and the academy to begin immediately working with the law enforcement officers involved and analyzing these situations and helping learn from them.”

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