Bangor officer Jenna Anzengruber was slowing down to park her police car on the side of Grove Street when a man walking down the sidewalk threw his backpack into the road. It was Brian Barker, whom she and other Bangor police officers had come to check on after learning he was suicidal and had a knife.
Barker walked away from Anzengruber and another officer who had arrived just moments earlier. Anzengruber told him, “Put the knife down.” She would repeat it eight more times.
In the background, a siren punctuated the air. It marked the arrival of the third and last officer on scene that day, Oct. 16, 2018. Officer Dylan Hall walked quickly toward Barker and took up a position behind a police cruiser, his gun drawn.
Barker paced back and forth across the road, approaching and receding from police. Hall fired four bullets, three of which hit Barker, who survived. Hall had been out of his cruiser for 20 seconds.
What happened in the 45 total seconds officers were on scene would not just change Barker’s life but would be used to determine whether the police shooting was justified in the eyes of Maine law. Police are only allowed to use deadly force when they feel there is an imminent threat to people’s lives. A year and a half ago, the attorney general’s office determined that Hall “acted in self-defense and in the defense of others.”
But since then, state officials have been inaccurately presenting a key fact about what happened in those 45 seconds. After a second review of the evidence, Attorney General Aaron Frey said Friday that the office got Barker’s distance from police wrong. Barker was more than 37 feet away from Hall when he was shot, not “about 15,” as his office had originally stated.
Even though Barker was more than twice as far away, Frey maintained that the police shooting was justified. In his mind, Barker’s movements leading up to the shooting represented enough of a threat to warrant the use of deadly force, and Barker’s distance from officers at the moment Hall fired did not factor into his determination.
Officers couldn’t know if Barker “was about to make a run at one of the three officers to follow through with … what he was trying to provoke, or if he was going to comply finally with the multiple demands that were issued for him to drop his weapon,” Frey said in an interview. “Officers don’t get the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking their decisions at the time they are making them.”
The fact that the revision doesn’t change the office’s ruling underscores the subjective nature of what people might find reasonable grounds for police to shoot someone.
The Bangor Daily News obtained for the first time videos of how police responded to Barker, under the Maine Freedom of Access Act, and showed them to four law enforcement experts who expressed differing opinions about the shooting. One didn’t see Barker as an imminent threat, noting that he appeared to have backed away from officers at the time he was shot. A second sided with Frey. Two questioned the tactics officers used without giving an opinion on the ruling.
The attorney general’s office did not revise other aspects of its report that the cruiser videos call into question.
For instance the attorney general’s report said Barker “aggressively closed the distance between himself and officers,” prompting Hall to shoot him. But Barker had been pacing in a number of directions, and appeared to be stepping to the side, away from officers, at the moment Hall fired, the videos show.
“There is space for people to come to different conclusions,” Frey said, but in his view Barker was posing a threat.
“He squares off with law enforcement and, not once but twice, is going at two of the officers trying to provoke the use of deadly force against him, demonstrating a low level of concern for himself and the officers with a bladed weapon,” Frey said. “The defense and review of these cases recognize that they’re fluid, they’re unpredictable.”
In addition to the three cruiser camera videos, the BDN reviewed other materials that the attorney general’s office used to investigate the Grove Street shooting, including officer interviews, lists of collected evidence and photographs of the scene. The BDN reconstructed the scene and concluded it would have been impossible for Barker to have been only 15 feet away from Hall.
While the BDN was reporting, it learned the attorney general’s office also was reviewing the shooting again. Frey said his office received a complaint and realized it had made an error. It had presented as fact what Hall had told an investigator, even though Hall incorrectly estimated the distance between himself and Barker.
Frey said it was important to him to correct the mistake.
“I hope the public sees from this that to the extent to which there are concerns raised, we’re not hiding from that,” Frey said. “Even when it doesn’t necessarily matter for the outcome, we’re still going to deal with that.”
Frey said he is “sensitive to the concern” that the office has never found an officer criminally culpable in recent history, but each case gets its own “individualized factual analysis.” The office has decided that police officers were justified in the more than 180 shootings that have taken place since 1990. Maine has had the highest rate of police shootings in New England since 2015.
Hall did not return two emails seeking an interview. He is now a deputy with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office and in June was involved in a fatal police shooting in Blue Hill. The attorney general’s office is investigating.
Barker declined an interview with the BDN.
In addition to the attorney general’s investigation, the Bangor Police Department reviewed the shooting and found no policy violations.
“The officers were presented with an exceptionally difficult and dangerous situation” where Barker wielded a knife and “refused repeated instruction from police officers to drop it,” Chief Mark Hathaway said. “All known information indicates that the officers acted within the guidelines of department procedures and that the action was warranted.”
The confrontation that day began after a woman called 911 because Barker wouldn’t leave her apartment, seemed high on drugs, hadn’t slept and had threatened to kill himself with a knife. Now Barker was walking on the sidewalk, and he was upset. He held a folding knife with a blade more than 3 inches long. Officer Eric Lund got to the scene first.
The videos show Lund was the only officer to say anything other than a command to Barker to drop the knife, though he repeated a form of “put the knife down” 13 times. “We’re just trying to help you out,” he said at one point, followed by, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it, man.”
Anzengruber joined Lund at the side of his cruiser, the vehicle between them and Barker, their guns drawn. Barker began to cross the residential road to where they stood, saying, “Smoke me” and “do it.” They stepped back, creating more space between them and Barker, but they didn’t fire. Barker stopped and walked in the other direction, away from the officers, as they continued to yell at him to put down the knife.
Barker then walked in the direction of the two officers again, who kept space — and Lund’s cruiser — between them. By this point, Hall had arrived and had taken up a position at the front bumper of Lund’s cruiser, near the other officers but farther back, more than the full car length between himself and Barker. He had drawn his gun. He remained there for less than 10 seconds, while Barker appeared to step toward him and then to the side, toward the opposite curb.
That’s when Hall shot him.
Hall fired his service pistol four times. Barker fell into the street, struck by three bullets in his groin and legs.
Police are often unreliable witnesses in stressful situations because they are human beings, and adrenaline alters perception, said Dennis Kenney, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former Florida police officer.
For that reason, it didn’t surprise him that Hall and his fellow officers got details wrong when recounting their confrontation with Barker to investigators with the attorney general’s office later that afternoon.
In his interview with an investigator, Hall wasn’t sure how many times he had fired his gun, guessing he may have shot twice. He described Barker as “so close” to him and even closer to the other officers.
“Why are you not shooting? He is going to fucking kill you,” Hall said he remembered thinking.
Hall also recalled Barker as moving fast. Hall said, “He started coming right back pretty quick,” “I know he was going quite fast,” and “if he sprints at me, I’m dead.”
But Lund’s characterization conflicted with Hall’s in his interview with an investigator, describing Barker walking at a “moderate pace.” The videos back up Lund’s description. Barker did walk toward officers, but then he stopped and headed in the other direction.
To Kenney, who reviewed the videos, it did not appear that Barker was enough of a threat to shoot him.
“If at any point [Barker] charged, it would be justified to shoot. I didn’t see anything, to me, that indicated immediate bodily danger,” Kenney said. Barker appears to be heading away from officers at the moment he is shot, he added.
“I’m always reluctant to declare something to be a bad shooting off of a limited amount of information, but I would say this one needs a more serious amount of examination,” he said.
David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a former police officer in Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington, agreed that Barker appeared to be stepping away when Hall fired.
“It’s hard to figure out what he might have done that would have led to the shooting,” he said.
Klinger declined to say whether he believed the shooting was justified, however, saying he had more concerns about the officers’ tactics than the decision to shoot.
That also was true for Quovella Spruill, the public safety director for the Franklin Township Police Department in New Jersey, who took issue with the speed at which everything unfolded.
“The situation wasn’t under control. He wasn’t just standing there with his hands up,” said Spruill, who spent 20 years in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, including as chief of detectives overseeing more than 150 detectives, supervisory officers and support staff. “It seemed like he was getting more and more agitated. But I’m talking about 10 seconds?”
The attorney general’s office recreated the scene of the shooting in a diagram that it provided to the BDN. But the diagram did not specify a key detail: the distance between Hall and Barker.
In his interview with an investigator, Hall said at first that Barker was between 10 and 15 yards away, or 30 to 40 feet. Later, when sketching the confrontation, Hall revised the distance down to about a car length, which is how the attorney general came to inaccurately state they were “about 15 feet” apart. The other officers on scene also underestimated the distance: Anzengruber said Barker was about 12 feet from her, and Lund said he was about 10 feet away.
Barker was actually 37.35 feet away from Hall, and he was 25.2 feet away from Lund and Anzengruber, according to the attorney general’s revisions.
Distance is one factor to consider when determining whether a police shooting is justified, Spruill said. Some officers are taught that someone with a knife is a significant threat if they are within 21 feet because they could quickly close the distance.
When asked if it was still reasonable for officers to shoot from farther away, especially with a cruiser for cover, she said it would depend on their perspective of the situation.
George Kirkham, a professor emeritus at the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice who served as a Florida police officer, doubted the officers in Barker’s case had time to de-escalate the situation before shooting. At that point, he also didn’t believe the distance mattered a great deal.
In such heated situations, “you’re scared as hell, and you’ve got very little wiggle room in terms of making a decision,” Kirkham said of the officers.
“The guy is close and intent. Action beats reaction. Someone could move very quickly in that distance,” he said. “I would call it a good shooting against the backdrop of the 300 shootings I’ve looked at.”
An officer’s decision to use deadly force is often made quickly, under stress. To justify a shooting, the attorney general must answer a narrow question: Would a reasonable officer have felt threatened under the circumstances?
But the loved ones of people shot by police are often left asking a different question, and not one the attorney general is tasked to answer: Did police have to shoot at all?
That question has haunted Ann Davenport of Bristol, New York, ever since her son, Eric Porter, was shot and killed by a Waterville police officer in February 2021.
In a case that bears some resemblance to the Barker shooting, Porter, in the midst of an apparent mental health crisis, ran toward an officer with a knife, prompting a different officer to shoot him in the back, according to the attorney general’s office, which justified the shooting in May. Unlike in the Barker case, however, the shooting was not captured on video.
Ann and her husband, Michael Davenport, believe police missed opportunities to apprehend or calm their son down safely before the situation escalated. Instead, officers tried to disarm Porter with a stun gun and pepper balls, actions the Davenports believe contributed to their son’s agitation.
“In our mind, there is no second thought [to using deadly force] because what are the consequences?” Michael Davenport said. “There are no consequences. In the state of Maine, there have never been consequences.”