The Millinocket police department, which closed in December of 2020, sits dark in the town’s municipal building in March 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The collection of law enforcement agencies likely to respond to potentially deadly situations in rural areas need to be in regular contact and have a plan in place for responding to and communicating about calls involving people in the midst of mental health crises.

Police also need to engage with mental health professionals when possible, receive training on how to deal with such people in crisis and proactively work with families whose members are struggling with mental health problems or addiction.

Those are some of the suggestions in a report delivered to lawmakers this month from the state’s deadly force review panel, which is tasked with reviewing Maine officers’ use of deadly force and recommending ways officers can avoid violence in the future. The panel reviewed 10 cases between 2017 and 2020 in which officers responding to a call used deadly force.

Lawmakers passed legislation creating the review panel in 2019, which allows the 15-person panel to give cases a fresh round of scrutiny after the attorney general’s office reviews deadly force cases.

The attorney general, which began reviewing use of deadly force cases in 1990, has never found an officer unjustified when he or she used such force during an encounter. Maine has had the highest rate of fatal police shootings in New England since 2015, with many of them happening in more remote places.

The newly released report is the panel’s second. The group’s first report made specific recommendations stemming from a review of the police response to an armed standoff in Machiasport in 2017, which ended when a marine patrol officer shot and wounded a gun-wielding man and a woman who was attempting to calm him down from a mental health crisis.

Seventy percent of the people involved in the reviewed cases lived in isolated, rural areas where “mutual aid among various law enforcement agencies is often the rule rather than the exception,” prompting a need for agencies to better streamline their communications with each other when responding to such situations, the review panel said.

All of the victims were white males who had prior criminal histories and had brandished or fired a weapon during the encounters.

In addition, 90 percent of the people whom police used deadly force against in the 10 cases were having mental health crises, including some who were suicidal, highlighting a need for law enforcement and mental health service agencies to collaborate and ensure that the families of such people were aware of available resources.

The panel recommended that agencies without the financial means to hire mental health or substance use professionals should train their officers and educate them on local services in their areas and how to access crisis workers when responding to calls.

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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.