It must have been the face paint.

Reports of Thursday’s fatal shooting by police of an armed veteran near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Togus had no sooner hit this newspaper’s website when the reader comments began piling up.

Most, not surprisingly, debated (with precious few available facts, mind you) whether a Togus police officer and a Maine game warden were justified in firing at former Marine James Popkowski of Grindstone in a wooded area adjacent to the sprawling Togus campus.

But other readers zoomed in not on the actual story, but on an accompanying photo by Kennebec Journal photographer Andy Molloy.

It showed two members of the Maine State Police Tactical Team — both clad in camouflage uniforms and body armor, with no-nonsense rifles at the ready and generous dabs of camouflage paint smeared across their cheeks and chins — heading into the woods long after the gunfire had subsided.

One commentator called it “a sad day for Maine” when police officers show up to the scene of an emergency dressed like “soldier-wannabes or SWAT ‘secret squirrel’ ninjas.”

“What is with the cops in camo?” asked another. “Are they afraid that a moose may get them if they are not disguised?”

Then there was the reader who called the tactical officers “a gestapo force” and lamented, “That picture is worth a thousand words of how we have finally become a police state.”

And last but not least, one pontificator went so far as to concoct a fictitious conversation between the two officers as they applied their face paint:

Cop #1: Hey, think I need more green?

Cop # 2: No, you look real scary with what you have on now — maybe hang a few more hand grenades on your vest, though.

Cop # 1: Yeah, good idea — maybe strap another knife on my leg, too, and tuck a 9 (mm handgun) in my sock! The media might be there!

“I can fully understand why people are concerned,” said Maj. Raymond Bessette, who oversees the Maine State Police Special Services units. “Because it’s so different from policing when we were growing up.”

Indeed.

Back when it was formed in 1982, according to its Web page, the Maine State Police Tactical Team “consisted of a handful of State Troopers armed with limited equipment.”

Not so today.

The unit now boasts 19 “tactical operators” — all state police troopers, detectives and sergeants scattered around the state with day jobs that have nothing to do with camouflage. In addition, there are two “tactical K-9 units” along with two “tactical medics” trained to deal with whatever calamities might arise in a crisis situation.

Add to that the various weapons “platforms” ranging from sidearms to high-powered rifles to tear gas launchers, the hands-free radios, the military-style helmets and outer tactical vests (and yes, that hard-not-to-notice face paint) and it quickly becomes hard to tell these guys from an Army Rangers unit crawling up and down the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan.

But is it all necessary? Or is it, as some on the sidelines suggest, an over-the-top reaction to a situation that could be resolved just as easily without a force that looks like a walking catalog for www.bulletproofme.com?

Maine State Police Lt. Christopher Grotton, who supervises the Tactical Team, said Friday that different crises warrant different responses. A hostage situation inside a downtown bank, for example, calls for different weapons and tactics than does a guy running around in the woods firing a rifle.

But in any case, Grotton said, when faced with the possibility that law enforcement officers’ and/or civilian lives are in danger, “we need to be able to respond safely with the right tools and the right tactics to resolve that situation as quickly as possible.”

Thursday’s shooting was just such an incident, according to both Grotton and Bessette.

When the call came in to the Tactical Team, they noted, the encounter between Popkowski and the officers on the scene was already resolved. The team’s job was to search and secure the woods — from which shots had been fired before the first officers even responded.

“It was still not known 100 percent whether (Popkowski) had acted alone or someone was in there with him,” said Bessette, adding that as more information is made public about Popkowski’s activities that day, people might better understand just how high the threat level was.

Bessette also noted that armed confrontations with police — the Tactical Team mobilizes about 50 times annually — seem to get more dangerous with each passing year.

From video games that teach kids at an early age which virtual combatants perform better with which weapons to the real-life availability of an ever-expanding smorgasbord of firepower (and training in how to use it), Bessette said, the threats faced by police in any confrontation these days are without question more potentially lethal than they were a decade or two ago.

“The threats and the death counts both seem to be climbing,” observed Bessette.

That said, put yourself in the place of those two Tactical Team members.

For whatever reason, an armed, 37-year-old man with intensive military training already has been shot and killed.

There’s no way of knowing whether one or more other armed subjects, perhaps with the same or better levels of training than Popkowski, are still in there hiding. Or, worse yet, waiting in ambush.

And your job is to go in and take a look around.

Now I’ll freely admit that when I first saw that photo last week, I did a double take.

I may have even wondered aloud, like all those online commentators, whether these guys were responding to a real emergency or just playing G.I. Joe.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize I wasn’t the one being asked to tiptoe into that anything-but-secure thicket and see what happens. And if I had, I’d have opted for all the protection I could get my hands on.

Maybe even a dab of face paint.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]