Police investigate after an officer-involved shooting on evening the evening of Dec. 1, 2015, at Leadbetter's at 1105 Hammond St. in Bangor. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is assembling a task force to look into an increase in police shootings in recent years in Maine. Credit: Ashley L. Conti | BDN | Ashley L. Conti | BDN

The Maine Attorney General has established a task force to review police use of deadly force, following a sharp uptick in the number of people shot to death by law enforcement officers in the state last year.

The 13-person committee is charged with digging into police shootings and other uses of fatal force beyond the question examined by the attorney general’s office of whether the action was legally justified. The panel will attempt to draw conclusions about why these incidents are occurring and whether they can be prevented.

“The dramatic increase in the number of police-involved deadly force incidents in the last few years deserves a broader analysis of the cause of such events,” Attorney General Janet Mills wrote in a letter to committee members, adding that the group should also look at the upswing in “critical incidents in which the police ultimately did not use deadly force.”

The group will be lead by Matt Brown, a retired U.S. probation officer who now works in crisis intervention training. Members include representatives from various law enforcement agencies, the Maine Association of Police, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, a criminal prosecutor, a forensic examiner and Maine journalists, including Bangor Daily News criminal justice reporter Judy Harrison.

[Fatal police shootings surge in Maine in 2017]

The group will examine confrontations between police and other people where deadly force was used, including cases where there was no injury or fatality, Mills said.

By last June, eight people had been shot dead by Maine police from seven different agencies between Arundel and Presque Isle in 2017. That number was twice the combined total of the two previous years and made last year the deadliest for police shootings in the past decade. For the entirety of 2017, there were 13 uses of deadly force in 2017 by police, resulting in nine fatalities and three injuries, according to the attorney general’s office.

Since 1990, the attorney general’s office has been charged with investigating all cases in which police use fatal force and, in more than 100 such cases, has never found a police officer to have been unjustified in its use. 

Last summer, Mills, a Democrat seeking her party’s nomination for governor this year, said that she was concerned with the sharp rise in police shootings but satisfied with the standards her office uses in deciding whether fatal force was legally justified.

On Thursday, she said that the purpose of the task force was to “analyze the societal causes” that might underlie the increase in police using fatal force, naming drug use, mental health issues and domestic violence as possible causes.

[How Maine police shootings are investigated]

“This task force couldn’t have come soon enough,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “We’re hopeful this process will lead to increased accountability and, most importantly, fewer shootings by police.”

The new group will review past shootings and other incidents to understand what led up to the use of fatal or nearly-fatal force with an eye towards understanding how to prevent future death, injury or confrontations, Mills’ letter state. Its first meeting is scheduled for March 6 in Augusta.

Every time a police officer uses deadly force in Maine, the Attorney General’s office is responsible for investigating whether a crime was committed.

This investigation does not look at whether the use of force could have been avoided and turns on the question of whether — in the heat of the moment — the police officer thought the person she or he shot was otherwise going to kill or hurt the officer or someone else.

In recent years, these investigations have taken between three and 18 months. The Attorney General’s office publishes its findings in public reports.

“I want an outside viewpoint, someone else to looks at the facts and see what societal factors might be at play,” Mills said. “If they have recommendations, they have recommendations.”

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