A panel created by the Legislature three years ago to examine police shootings in Maine and make recommendations has no power to mandate that its advice be taken up by state officials, and will require more resources for it to be effective in the future, its leaders told legislators this week.

Maine’s Deadly Force Review Panel was created by law in 2019 and began work the next year examining shootings by police, with a mandate to report how the state can change policies and practices to enhance the safety of the public and police officers.

But the reports, which have trickled in quietly to the Judiciary Committee and were only recently posted for public reading on the Attorney General’s website, have not led to major policy changes.

Although the Attorney General’s Office already reviews each police shooting to determine if it was legally justified, those reviews do not ask why shootings occur and what forces aligned to bring a person into deadly conflict with police. The deadly force review panel’s work begins after the attorney general determines if the shooting is justified – and in every case in modern times, the AG’s office has found that police acted within the law.

In its annual report released in January, the panel recommended deepening 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 how to connect 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.

During the discussion this week, legislators debated how new deadly force panel reports should be taken up.


“What do you propose we do with these recommendations?” said Rep. Thomas Harnett, D-Gardiner, co-chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Francine Stark, co-chair of the deadly force panel and executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The group’s findings show that people shot by officers in recent years fit a common profile: All are men, and most lived in isolated, rural communities. Most had mental health problems and were in a crisis when they were shot. Many had family who tried to intervene but were unsuccessful or called police to get help themselves. Many were known to law enforcement from prior disturbances, and still had access to deadly weapons, often firearms.

Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, suggested that the Legislature change the law to mandate that the attorney general weighs in.

“What I foresee being useful is … the law be changed to require the AG’s office respond to your various recommendations and get back to us with suggested changes, which might take the form of curriculum changes at the academy, training recommendations for officers or certain protocols when the actual crisis crystalizes,” Moriarty said.

Another issue the co-chairs discussed was that the 16-member panel is all white and mostly male, with more than half of its members from police organizations or state agencies that work closely with police. Changing its composition would require tweaks to the state law that created it. 



During the session on Tuesday, co-chairs Stark and Vendean Vafiades asked lawmakers to rebalance the composition of the panel to add more diverse members – including women, people who are not in law enforcement and people who are not white.

They also urged lawmakers to fund staff for the panel so that it can be more effective in sorting through hundreds of pages of confidential police records about shootings.

Stark also said the panel should look beyond the actual shooting incident. By the time someone has reached that crisis state, she said, it’s already too late, and the time to head off a deadly encounter with police is months or years earlier. Lawmakers and police should be thinking more about the frayed network of support for mentally ill adults in many communities, about how family members are often left to try to patch together care without adequate resources.

“They are basically living in this containment posture,” Stark said. “Parents with adult children who are struggling and have weapons in the home and (who end up) calling (police) for help rarely gets them help. As a panel, we raise it up, and say, ‘We don’t know the substance of the last 10 years (of this person’s life), or what exactly these people have been doing to create a web of care and safety precautions around this person.’ Somebody should care about that.”

Making matters worse, when police show up to respond to a crisis, the first officers on scene do not have access to other departments’ records, which often contain warning notes about how to deal effectively with the person in crisis.

Asking people in crisis who are not thinking rationally to respond to rational commands from police will rarely work as intended, Stark said.

“No matter how nicely you say, ‘Drop your weapon,’ they’re not going to,” Stark said.

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