Police in Maine have shot people 175 times since 1990. The AG’s office has ruled police were justified every time.
“That’s an incredible batting average,” said Thom Harnett, a former assistant attorney general who spent 27 years in the Maine attorney general's office.
Harnett, now retired and serving as a Maine state representative, is one of many advocating for change.
Logic would dictate Maine’s outcome a statistical impossibility, argues Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
“It’s very shocking for the attorney general not to have found any law enforcement officer guilty of unlawful behavior after they’ve shot and killed someone in the entire history of the state of Maine,” said Kebede. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Maine's record on police shootings has been well publicized over the past decade, prompting various reform efforts.
Despite the changes, however, the state continues to clear police officers of criminal wrongdoing each time they shoot someone. Maine families impacted by police shootings also told the USA TODAY Network that new reforms haven’t yielded the transparency they’re desperate for.
Bangor attorney Hunter Tzovarras said those outcomes show a key shortcoming of the AG's investigations has seemingly gone overlooked, despite all of the public attention — that the AG's office typically only interviews the officers who use deadly force at the beginning of the investigation, even if it later finds evidence that contradicts the officer’s account.
“In all the cases I’ve seen the AG do, there’s never been a follow-up interview,” said Tzovarras, who has represented families in roughly a dozen Maine deadly force cases over the past decade. “There’s maybe a tendency, either implicitly or even intentionally, to take the officer’s version at face value and not look for evidence that would contradict it.”
Jeff Evangelos, a state representative who has filed various bills seeking reforms, agrees. Based on his review of every police shooting on record in Maine, Evangelos said he believes there is an "inherent, systemic bias" in the way the AG's office investigates officers.
"People (think), ‘Oh, it’s Maine, it’s idyllic, it’s beautiful, it’s peaceful,'" he said. "No, it looks that way, but if you peel the veneer off here, it’s still Stephen King… (Y)ou don’t get to 175-0 unless there is something very, very wrong."
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, among other cases across the country in recent years, have demonstrated officers can be inaccurate in their initial accounts after someone dies in their custody.
The USA TODAY Network consulted several national legal and law enforcement experts, each of whom said follow-up interviews are standard practice in all other criminal investigations. They said their absence or inconsistent use in Maine’s deadly force investigations should prompt all states — not just Maine — to enact new measures to ensure investigators aren't favoring law enforcement.
“Most states have a similar situation to Maine’s where (they’ve), from a criminal perspective, almost never had a conviction,” said Justin Hansford, a Howard University law professor and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.
Maine's police shooting investigations have prompted questions for years
The push for change isn’t new. The Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and other news outlets have long questioned why the AG's office has never found a police shooting to be unjustified since the office began investigating police use-of-force incidents in 1990. (As of November, determinations were still pending in 19 of the 175 investigations the AG has opened since 1990.)
News outlets have also questioned why national data shows Maine has the highest rate of fatal police shootings in New England. Maine has recorded 22 police shootings per million residents over the past six years, while the more densely populated and more significantly policed Massachusetts recorded seven, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post.
The news stories and intense public advocacy have prompted state task forces and legislative changes in recent years.
A 2019 bill created a new deadly force review panel to review police shootings after the AG finishes investigating. The review panel has since sided with the AG each and every time.
A new law took effect in October that mandates the AG issues a justification ruling within six months of an incident, instead of the years it previously could take. Maine families told the USA TODAY Network they have received little or no new information or contact from the AG's office since the new investigative deadline took effect.
Accountability hampered by undercounting police shootings
More than half of police killings in the US are unreported or misreported in government data, University of Washington researchers found in a study published in British medical journal The Lancet in September. The study included one of the most comprehensive looks to date at the disproportionate impact police violence has on Black people in America.
If shootings are underreported nationally, and if review panels such as Maine's rely heavily on AG reports that fail to critically analyze police narratives, true accountability isn't possible, argued Andy Horwitz, director of Rhode Island's Roger Williams University School of Law's Criminal Defense Clinic.
"Is it possible that in reality all (these) scenarios were scenarios where the police conduct was justified?" said Horwitz. “It’s possible, but it’s highly unlikely and I think what that is telling you is the system is broken and the investigations are not sincere.
"A prosecutorial entity will tend to assume credibility on the part of a police officer and they will often tend to assume the opposite when dealing with a civilian, and of course that bias is exacerbated tremendously when the civilian is a person of color.”
Maine attorney general's investigative process
The USA TODAY Network made several attempts to interview the Maine attorney general's office about the methods investigators use while reviewing the actions of officers who wield deadly force. A spokesperson provided data for the office's police shooting investigations but didn't answer emailed questions about the methods, nor did the office return multiple phone calls.
When Portland news station WGME asked Attorney General Aaron Frey this fall whether he and his investigators are able to objectively evaluate police shootings, Frey said: "I am confident in my office’s ability to objectively evaluate each case that comes before us, treat it on the facts that are presented for each individual case, and apply the law that’s been provided to us by the legislature.”
Frey, a former state representative, has been the state's attorney general since 2019.
The AG has exclusive responsibility for the direction and control of such investigations and its investigators are "independent of any other law enforcement agency," according to language the office outlines in each justification decision it releases.
"Under Maine law, a law enforcement officer is authorized to use deadly force when the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary for self-defense or the defense of others against the imminent use of deadly force... allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a given situation," reads the office's press releases.
Investigators, according to the AG's office, don't analyze whether deadly force could've been averted or whether there could be civil liability.
'You're tarnishing everybody else'
Susan Bolduc is one of the loved ones crushed by uncertainty as she waits for answers two years after her teenaged son was shot by a Maine officer.
Death threats to vitriol: New England families pay a price in public fights for justice
York County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Carr killed Bolduc’s 16-year-old son, Christopher Camacho, outside the Dollar Tree in Limerick on Dec. 27, 2019. Carr responded to a report of an armed robbery involving a man wielding what turned out to be a BB gun and a machete.
Bolduc said the limited information she’s been able to glean points to a clear “suicide by cop” situation, but the AG’s office has refused to release video and other investigative materials because the investigation isn’t finished.
“To this date, I’ve never been able to see any of the evidence,” said Bolduc.
She believes the fact that her son was half-Bolivian and living in a rural, largely white area played a role in why police didn’t do more to deescalate the situation without deadly force.
“The injustice you’re doing, it’s bad enough for the families, but you’re creating a feeling toward law enforcement of total distrust that everybody’s (behaving) like you because you’re not handling it appropriately,” said Bolduc. “You’re tarnishing everybody else that’s trying to do the right thing and a good job.”
WGME reported in October that the AG expects determinations in Camacho’s case and the 18 other pending deadly force cases by the spring.
'What we're doing isn't working'
Police departments across the country have started using specialized crisis workers to co-respond to calls like the one involving Camacho, including departments in Portland and Augusta. Others, mostly in large cities, have created unarmed civilian units for crisis incidents — an approach modeled after several European countries.
It’s working in Eugene, Olympia, Denver: More cities are sending civilian responders, not police, on mental health calls
The ACLU's Kebede and Harnett, the retired Maine assistant AG, said early results from such changes have been encouraging, but they said those changes can't solve problems with the standards and protocols used by states' accountability arms.
“What we’re doing isn’t working,” said Harnett, who directed the AG’s Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Unit from 2001 through 2010. “We need to look at all aspects of how we’re responding to these situations and how we investigate those situations when they take that bad turn.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Maine AG ruled all recent police shootings justified; experts weigh in