The Maine Deadly Force Review Panel was created in 2019 to answer the toughest of questions raised when a police officer shoots someone: Was the shooting, even if legally justified, at all avoidable?

In its third annual report, released last month, the panel lays out clearly how access to health care can keep someone from spiraling into a crisis that culminates in a call to law enforcement.

But what’s less clear, still, is how police should deescalate a situation once it’s reached that point.

In the majority of cases, that’s what happens. But there are only hints of it in the panel’s report, particularly where it cites the use of Maine’s yellow-flag law, under which police and the courts can confiscate the weapons of someone in the midst of a mental health crisis.

It’s important to note when things go wrong, as in the case of three Augusta police officers who in 2019 failed to properly announce themselves while conducting an early morning, warrantless search for a suspect and needlessly escalated what could have been a fairly routine situation.

According to the report, none of the officers identified themselves as police that morning, leading to “ambiguity” as to whether Robert Farrington, who was ultimately shot and wounded by one of the officers, “knew that the individuals knocking on the doors and windows were police officers … potentially setting up the possibility that Mr. Farrington may use force in defense of his residence.”


The panel recommended officers in such situations identify themselves as police officer whenever possible, “in a loud enough manner” or “through other means.”

Responding to the report, Augusta Police chief Jared Mills said his office was in the process of “comparing their recommendations to our existing reviews, investigations, policies and procedures to ensure we are following best practices moving forward.”

But reviewing failures may be less important than figuring out what works best; what specific approaches and strategies can be used to mitigate the potential for escalation and use of violent force.

It would be helpful to know, for instance, how officers dealt successfully with a Waterville woman who, the report says, was armed and in the middle of a psychotic break, or how they approached a young man in Wells who was having violent thoughts about co-workers.

But with the panel’s statutory focus on cases where police used force, there is only a quick mention of cases in which it was avoided, without details that might help us to understand the difference in how police responded to a call that ended peacefully and a call that didn’t – something the panel itself has noted.

Outside of that area, the panel’s report has a lot to offer. It is clear on how matters unrelated to police response, such as untreated substance abuse and mental illness, caused largely by a lack of treatment options, make it more likely a person will suffer a crisis that leads to a call to law enforcement.


It details the complex and chaotic scenes to which police respond, made all the more dangerous by the presence of firearms, and how a new Maine law should be used better to confiscate weapons when appropriate.

It argues that better communication between law enforcement and mental health care providers could help police better who and what they are dealing with, and whether it’s a threat.

It recognizes that by the time police are called, it’s already a crisis, one that forces them to make difficult decisions in a snap, with everyone’s lives and safety in the balance. Everyone’s focus should be on keeping the person out of crisis to begin with.

But when a crisis cannot be avoided, it is imperative that police know how to defuse such incidents – tense with the threat of violence and full of fear and misunderstandings – while avoiding deadly force as much as possible.

The report by the Deadly Force Review Panel shows there is a lot to learn about why police end up firing guns in the course of their duties.

We should learn just as much, if not more, about how they find a way not to.

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