Mexico officer Dustin Broughton pulled over by the Mexico One Stop to wait for backup from two officers from neighboring Rumford on the night of Oct. 13, 2022. They would face together what was to come in the dark, rain and wind.
“I’m good. Let’s go,” yelled Rumford Corporal Lawrence Winson after he arrived with the officer he was training that night, Seth Pond.
The trio continued to an apartment on Roxbury Road where they had heard that a man in the middle of a mental health crisis had threatened his girlfriend with a machete. They didn’t wait for an Oxford County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who was en route but still several miles away. They had to get there, one officer would later recall.
When they arrived, the officers discovered a man, Daniel Tibbetts, now 23, outside in the rain, cutting his wrists with the machete. Three seconds after the three officers stepped out of their cruisers, Broughton shot Tibbetts three times. Despite bullets ripping through his face, abdomen and right leg, Tibbetts survived.
The officer was justified in shooting Tibbetts because he was acting in defense of himself and others, the attorney general’s office found after an investigation. In clearing Broughton of any criminal wrongdoing, it produced a three-page public report about what happened. But that report might leave the public with the wrong impression of what transpired.
The Bangor Daily News obtained through a public records request the agency’s recorded interviews with the police on scene that night, dashcam videos and more detailed reports. The additional information shows how transparency tools failed, forcing investigators to rely on the eyewitness accounts of the three officers and video footage of Tibbetts’ shadow, to come to a conclusion, creating a hazier picture of the events that night than what the attorney general’s final, high-profile report depicted.
The attorney general’s report doesn’t mention that only three seconds elapsed between when officers stepped outside their cruisers and Broughton shot Tibbetts.
It omits that body-worn and dashboard cameras failed.
It omits that officers didn’t announce themselves as police.
It omits that the officers didn’t warn Tibbetts they were about to shoot.
It omits that Tibbetts was in the middle of a mental health crisis and was trying to slash his wrists with a machete when officers arrived.
It also does not mention that officers likely got the distance between themselves and Tibbetts wrong. They estimated he was closer to them than he actually was.
While knowing this information is important for understanding the truth and ensuring investigators were thorough in reviewing the police shooting — which was the third the small town saw in 12 months and the second for Broughton — it ultimately was not key in determining whether the shooting was justified.
The attorney general’s office omitted certain details that weren’t directly pertinent to its final conclusion, it said in a statement.
“These letters do not provide an analysis of each and every piece of evidence,” the statement said. “There are other organizations and entities responsible for reviewing other parts of an incident, including law enforcement policies and actions leading up to the shooting, as well as societal conditions leading to these unfortunate events.”
Alongside the attorney general’s investigation, there is also supposed to be — according to Mexico Police Department policy — an internal police department investigation and a review of the shooting completed by a local oversight panel. Plus there may be an examination by the Maine Deadly Force Review Panel.
After a year and a half, none of those groups have published any reports on the Mexico shooting, however.
Adding the details about police officers’ response likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the investigation by the attorney general’s office, which has never found a police shooting unjustified, given the high standard of evidence needed to charge an officer with a crime, said Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
That’s because, absent evidence to the contrary, what matters most is whether the officer perceived a threat, Kenney said. The investigation into the Mexico police shooting underscores how much weight is given not necessarily to the facts leading up to a shooting but to the officer’s belief or perception that they are in danger.
Three officers, three perspectives
Rumford police officer Seth Pond had only been on the job for two months, and had not yet completed his police academy training, when he witnessed Broughton shoot Tibbetts three times.
All three officers were questioned about what happened after the shooting, and they all provided different details. It is common for eyewitnesses, whether they are police or not, to recall high-stress incidents incorrectly.
Pond couldn’t fully remember what happened. He tried to focus on the road as he drove through Rumford and eventually to 87 Roxbury Road in Mexico, he said. The rain and wind made it hard to see, and he couldn’t exactly hear the radio call that prompted him and Winson to head for Mexico, he told investigators.
Things happened quickly once all three officers arrived outside the apartment, he said.
“It was like a time warp at that moment,” Pond said.
As the three officers arrived, Broughton, in his cruiser, illuminated a man, Tibbetts, in front of the apartment with a spotlight, Pond told an investigator. Pond saw him holding “a long pointy metal thing,” he said. He couldn’t tell which hand held the object.
Tibbetts then made “a lot of threatening gestures” and was agitated, Pond said in his interview with the attorney general’s office. But Pond did not consistently explain what exactly Tibbetts did that appeared threatening.
At one point in his interview, he told the investigator that Tibbetts had a “threatening posture,” and he was yelling and screaming at the officers. But it wasn’t clear what exactly Tibbetts was saying, Pond said.
Tibbetts held the object above his head at one point and gestured toward the officers, Pond said. But, when pressed, Pond couldn’t precisely remember the object’s position.
“It was a towards us kinda thing,” he said. Tibbetts was “holding the object above his waist while waving it around.”
While Pond’s account was unclear, Broughton and Winson presented recollections that were more precise.
Winson remembered how the man moved and his demeanor, all witnessed in three seconds. Tibbetts started walking toward the officers when they arrived, machete in hand, Winson said. Winson and Broughton collectively told him to drop the machete three times.
Despite their commands, Tibbetts kept walking in a “threatening manner,” Winson told investigators.
“I had made a decision: If he takes another step out, I’m going to shoot him,” Winson told the attorney general’s office. “As I was [thinking] that process through, Broughton fired.”
Winson did not end up firing his gun, but he told investigators he was squeezing the trigger as Broughton fired, and Tibbetts immediately “crumbled,” Winson said.
Then Broughton shot the man two more times.
The officer who fired, meanwhile, said he could remember each individual moment that passed before and after he pulled the trigger of his gun.
Before shooting Tibbetts, Broughton felt confident to head to Roxbury Road to “establish a dialogue,” he said. That didn’t happen.
Like Winson, Broughton said he shined his cruiser’s spotlight on Tibbetts when they arrived. But Broughton couldn’t tell at the time what, exactly, was in Tibbetts’ hands, he said. Nonetheless, Broughton said he and Winson told Tibbetts to drop his weapon.
Tibbetts kept walking toward the officers in a “threatening manner,” Broughton said. That’s when Broughton shot him once “out of fear for my safety and the safety of the other officers,” he said.
After the first shot hit Tibbetts, the man flinched back to the right. Then, Tibbetts “squared off his shoulders” toward Broughton “and hunched them down, ‘almost like someone who was getting ready to charge or bolt forward,’” Broughton said, according to a summary of his interview.
“‘His body language looked like he had already made up his mind that he was looking to fight or use aggression,’” Broughton said.
Then Broughton shot Tibbetts twice more.
While the three officers’ recollections varied, with none of them lining up with what investigators ultimately determined, those differences likely gave credence to the stories, Kenney, of John Jay, said.
“Eyewitness testimony is terribly unreliable, particularly when you’re under stress. If the three officers told exactly the same story that would imply that they had gotten together and kind of arranged their facts beforehand for testimony,” he said. “So I suspect that that probably actually lent credibility, that there were differences.”
Much of the attorney general’s investigation relied on the account of witnesses, including the three officers. But the investigation shouldn’t have gone that way.
All three officers were supposed to be wearing body-worn cameras, according to Rumford and Mexico police department policies. But there is no footage.
That’s because Pond’s camera was dead, as the new officer had worked 18 hours by the time of the shooting; Broughton was not wearing his department-issued camera; and Winson forgot to turn his on until after the shooting.
In fact, the only footage investigators could use was from police cars’ dashboard cameras — though they didn’t have audio of officers outside the cruisers — and a neighbor’s doorbell camera.
It’s difficult to fully see what happened in the footage captured by the cruisers because Broughton’s car faced in the wrong direction, and Pond and Winson’s bodies blocked their camera when they stepped outside their vehicle.
However, in the moments before they stepped out, Tibbetts can be seen on the lawn outside the Roxbury Road apartment building.
He stood in the grass, dressed in a gray T-shirt and jeans, the video showed. Broughton’s spotlight illuminated the man, who then slowly began to walk toward the officers with a long object in his right hand.
Once the officers stepped into the road, all that can be seen of Tibbetts is a shadow, which investigators used to piece together what they believed happened, according to a summary of the case prepared by the attorney general’s office. State investigators slowed down the dashboard footage and viewed the shooting in individual frames.
Based on the review of the shadows in the background, Tibbetts approached the officers with his right arm down by his side.
Then Tibbetts raised his arm to “at least shoulder height,” the summary said.
Tibbetts then brought his arm back down to his side, and Broughton fired his first shot.
Tibbetts appeared to be falling to the ground as Broughton fired his second shot. By the time Broughton fired his third, Tibbetts’ shadow was no longer visible. Tibbetts lay on the shoulder of the road.
The whole interaction took place in “just under two seconds,” according to the attorney general’s office investigators.
Because there is no clear footage of the incident and the weather was stormy, investigators had a difficult time determining exactly how far away the officers stood. Both Broughton and Winson placed Tibbetts about 30 feet away when Broughton shot him.
But Tibbetts was closer to 58 feet away from Broughton, a state police evidence technician and another detective from the attorney general’s office found, according to a summary of the investigation.
In the footage captured by a neighbor’s doorbell camera, officers are seen getting out of their cars, yelling at Tibbetts and then opening fire, all within three seconds.
There would be far less uncertainty surrounding the shooting if the officers’ cameras were functioning, Kenney said. But investigators have to work with what is available.
“If shadows are all they have to go on, then that’s what they have,” he said.
Tibbetts did not speak to the BDN for this story, but he previously said he remembered being confused about what was happening that night. He wasn’t aware the police had arrived, he said.
He had believed his child, whom he was estranged from, had recently died, according to an attorney general report. Then he had argued with his girlfriend, which sent him into a mental health breakdown.
‘Interpreting what’s reasonable’
Officers knew in advance of their arrival that Tibbetts was likely experiencing some sort of mental health crisis. But officers still believed he was a threat to their safety, leaving no apparent room for de-escalation tactics.
“If [Tibbetts] was trying to commit suicide, doing it for him isn’t a better option,” Kenney said. “But it’s also the case that the officers may well have feared for their own safety.”
In general, police officers are permitted to use deadly force when they have reason to believe that someone poses an immediate risk of death or serious injury either to the officer or others, Kenney said. This concept is referred to as the “reasonable officer standard.”
“The difficulty is obviously interpreting what’s reasonable,” Kenney said. “The courts have applied a standard which basically says that if a reasonable officer would interpret those behaviors as threatening in the circumstances in which they were offered, then the officer is justified in using deadly force.”
Once officers perceive a threat, their ability to respond can be limited, especially if they patrol rural areas with few backup options. In the case of Tibbetts’ shooting, there was limited police coverage in the area. The officers believed Tibbetts had already threatened another person and was likely to harm officers.
“They certainly had reason to be wary, so the three seconds doesn’t really disturb me if he was actually doing something that was immediately threatening or that could reasonably be perceived as immediately threatening,” Kenney said.
Tasers might work, Kenney said, but they are not always effective, leaving room for an armed attacker to continue to advance.
Otherwise, police are left with their nightstick, “and bringing a nightstick to a machete fight is probably not advisable,” he said. “If they delayed their response, then the officers would be on the hook for not responding properly.”
Investigators looking into police shootings have to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has occurred. With limited evidence to the contrary, the thrust of the Mexico case rests on the reasonableness of what the officers felt and thought, even if they got the details wrong, Kenney said.
“You have to have definitive proof, and there clearly isn’t in this case,” he said.
Mexico police chief Roy Hodsdon did not respond to an interview request .
Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter on the Bangor Daily News’ Maine Focus team. Questions? Stories to share? Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.