A sign for the now-defunct Millinocket Police Department. Maine police have fatally shot 26 people since 2015, giving the state the highest rate of fatal police shootings in New England. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

When Shannon Wilcox was fatally shot last month by an Aroostook County sheriff’s deputy near the University of Maine at Presque Isle, it brought the number of deadly police shootings in Maine’s northernmost county to six in the past six years — the highest number for any Maine county.

Statewide, Wilcox’s shooting marked the 26th fatal shooting by Maine police since 2015, giving Maine the highest rate of police shootings in all of New England in that time, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post. Over the same time period, police in New Hampshire — with a population similar to Maine’s — have fatally shot 18 people. 

Maine’s rate of 20 fatal police shootings per 1 million residents over the past six years compares with rates of 6 per 1 million in more densely populated Massachusetts and Connecticut, and 4 in Rhode Island. The more rural northern New England states have seen higher rates, with New Hampshire’s rate working out to 14 fatal police shootings per million people and Vermont’s to 16, according to the Post database. 

Police killings have been under heightened scrutiny nationwide over the past year since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin. But it can be hard to ascertain why Maine has the highest rate of fatal police shootings in New England — a rate on par with larger states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Indiana. Those interviewed for this story cited mental illness, substance use disorder and high rates of gun ownership as factors.

The state attorney general’s office has never found a police shooting unjustified since 1990, when it began investigating police uses of force, leading one criminal justice expert to worry that the investigations were being conducted in a “pro forma fashion.”

Aroostook County has been the site of two of Maine’s three fatal police shootings so far in 2021. 

In addition to Shannon Wilcox’s death on July 8, an Aroostook County sheriff’s deputy fatally shot 28-year-old Jacob Wood during an armed confrontation in Mars Hill’s Scovil Apartments complex on April 14. In both cases, Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen said, mental illness and substance use disorder played a role.

Maine’s shooting rate doesn’t give the whole story of how many more crises officers have had to respond to during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gillen said. Calls to mental health crisis hotlines and reports of domestic violence have spiked during the pandemic.

Gillen said his officers have been tasked with responding to people in mental distress who should be in treatment, not handcuffs. That treatment, however, is hard to come by and often unaffordable, he said.

“Our corrections officers are forced to be mental health providers or caretakers when they’re not trained for that,” he said. “Our jails are overrun with people who shouldn’t even be there.”

A look at the victims

With one exception, all of the Maine fatal shooting victims since 2015 have been men. Most were 45 or older. 

All but one of the victims was considered armed in the Post database, with some having more than one weapon. In 16 of the shootings, victims had guns. Four had knives, and two had toy guns — which the Post database considered weapons. In two of the shootings, vehicles were considered weapons. 

Most shootings occured in small towns in central or southern Maine. After Aroostook County, the counties that saw the most shootings were Kennebec and Penobscot, with four each. Cumberland and Androscoggin counties each saw three shootings.

Seven shootings involved the Maine State Police, while three involved Aroostook County sheriff’s deputies and another three involved the Presque Isle Police Department. York County sheriff’s deputies were involved in two of the shootings. 

More than a third of the fatal shootings occurred in one year, in 2017, when police fatally shot nine people.

Despite Maine’s rate of fatal police shootings, the state has the lowest rate of officers in New England based on its population. In 2019, Maine had 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents, the fifth lowest rate in the nation, according to FBI data. Across New England, the six states employ 2.6 officers for every 1,000 residents.

And while Maine’s rate of fatal police shootings is the highest in New England, it is lower compared with predominantly rural states elsewhere in the country. Idaho and Montana recorded rates of 32 and 38 fatal shootings per 1 million people, respectively. Kansas and South Dakota had rates close to Maine’s, with 21 and 23 fatal shootings per 1 million residents, respectively. New Mexico had the highest rate in the nation, with 62 fatal police shootings per million residents since 2015.

Gun ownership

Maine’s high rate of gun ownership is one factor that can explain the state’s rate of police shootings, said Geoff Bickford, the executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition. Forty-five percent of Maine adults live in a household with a firearm, according to a RAND Corporation study. 

“If you can own a gun legally [in Maine] you can carry it basically wherever you want, unless there’s some other prohibition on it like a private business or school or federal building,” Bickford said. 

In addition, people aren’t required to inform authorities if they’re licensed to carry a concealed weapon, which puts the onus on police to confirm permits when they come into contact with someone carrying a gun, Bickford said. Maine residents who can legally own a gun aren’t even required to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“It’s just an insane, dangerous way to expect our police to engage citizens in the state, especially one that’s so filled with firearms,” he said.

“The particular lethality of a firearm means that [police] don’t have a lot of time to make a decision about what [they’re] going to do” when they encounter someone with a gun, Bickford said, raising the likelihood that civilian-police encounters will lead to deadly outcomes. 

In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, 10 and 11 percent of adults respectively live in households with guns. In Connecticut, the rate is 18 percent. In New Hampshire, it’s 39 percent. Vermont’s rate is 46 percent, slightly higher than Maine’s, according to the RAND data.

State investigations

Whenever a Maine police officer uses deadly force — whether someone is killed or not — the attorney general’s office investigates. The office considers whether each officer was justified in using deadly force but doesn’t take into account whether such force could have been avoided.

Marc Malon, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, confirmed that 17 such cases dating back to 2018 are currently under review. So far, none of the attorney general’s reviews, which date back to 1990, has found an officer was unjustified in the use of deadly force.

Nationally, only 1 to 2 percent of officers involved in fatal shootings are charged, said Phil Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former New Hampshire police officer. 

“So it’s not too out of the realm of possibilities that every one of those officers was legally justified,” he said, but he worried that the investigations were being conducted in a “pro forma fashion.”

In his experience, use-of-force investigations confirm what officers said happened, Stinson said. “They only walk back from that if something sticks out that’s so bizarre that it cannot be rationally explained,” he said. 

At the same time, Stinson said it was hard to draw statistical inferences from Maine’s shooting numbers due to the small sample size. 

There have been a handful of attempts to go beyond the reviews from the attorney general’s office and recommend how police could have avoided the use of violence. In 2018, then-Attorney General Janet Mills put together a panel after the state saw 13 police shootings the previous year, nine of them fatal. That panel recommended more training and mental health resources for law enforcement.

Then, in 2019, lawmakers created a deadly force review panel to make non-binding recommendations. A number of law enforcement officials, civil rights advocates and domestic violence experts sit on it, but the lawmaker who sponsored the original bill — which was amended before passage — thinks it’s toothless. 

“It’s weak and dominated by law enforcement,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship. “They don’t have the power to reverse a ruling and call something unjustified.”

The ideal solution to Maine’s high rate of police shootings is a two-pronged one, said Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine.

In addition to changing the attorney general’s standard for investigating shootings, policing practices need reform, he said. Sending trained clinicians to address people in mental distress would be one way to reduce shootings, as well as training officers to prioritize deescalating high-stress situations.

A better public safety system would be one that doesn’t send armed officers to every type of crisis, Kebede said.

“We need to reduce the role of police in our lives overall,” he said.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.