A police officer carries a protective mask around his gun belt while working traffic. Credit: Mic Smith / AP

Law enforcement officers should have planned and communicated more effectively when they responded 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.

That was one of several findings by a new panel which reviews the use of deadly force by Maine police officers and recommends ways officers might avoid violence in the future. It recently completed its first report, outlining what can be learned from the Dec. 9, 2017, Machiasport shooting of Jason Jackson and Tiffany Smith by Marine Patrol Officer Matthew Carter. Attorney General Aaron Frey has ruled the shooting was justified.

The new report doesn’t affect that ruling but rather subjects the incident to another layer of scrutiny with the goal of improving how Maine police behave in potentially deadly confrontations.

The Deadly Force Review Panel determined that police failed to establish effective methods of communication and set up a central command post the night of the shooting, putting responding officers and bystanders at greater risk of harm during an already volatile situation. Law enforcement agencies, especially in rural areas where departments rely on each other for help during rapidly evolving situations, should plan their coordination ahead of time, according to the report, which lawmakers received on Oct. 28.

The report outlines a timeline of the shooting based on more than 300 pages of documents.

The night of the stand-off, police had chased Jackson, an armed suspect in a home invasion from earlier that day, through a snowstorm into the home of his former girlfriend, Smith. Carter, a responding officer who already knew Jackson, ultimately encountered the pair on a landing, where Smith was trying to soothe Jackson because he was suffering a mental health crisis and threatening to kill himself with a revolver.

Jason Jackson, 34, of East Machias, lies in his Bangor hospital bed within a week or so of being shot during an armed confrontation with police in Machiasport Dec. 9, 2017. Credit: Courtesy of Timothy Kenlan

Using a rifle to hold Jackson at gunpoint, Carter tried to persuade Jackson to drop his weapon and offer him help. However, when Jackson grew agitated and pointed his gun at the officer as if he was going to shoot, Carter fired seven shots. It’s unclear how many times he hit Jackson, who lost part of his arm in the shooting.

Carter also shot and wounded Smith, who tried to shield Jackson from the bullets.

The attorney general’s office investigates every use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer to determine whether there was a legal basis to act in a potentially lethal manner. Carter was justified when he pulled the trigger that night, the office ruled in July. In more than 100 such reviews since 1990, the attorney general’s office has never found that an officer wasn’t justified in his or her actions.

However, investigators do not consider whether cops could have found alternative ways to diffuse the situation.

The newly established Deadly Force Review Panel aims to identify whether officers followed best practices before they opted to use deadly force and proposes ways officers might avoid killing or injuring people in the future.

It noted several key findings about the Machiasport shooting:

— The Machias Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Maine Marine Patrol did not set up a central command post or establish a central channel for communicating when they responded to the scene that night. As a result, officers didn’t always know one another’s whereabouts, which “enhanced the sense of urgency” for officers to follow Jackson into Smith’s duplex.

— The failure to establish a perimeter around Smith’s duplex “potentially compromised the safety” of everyone present and likely allowed Smith, who had exited her home when police first arrived, to return inside and place herself in harm’s way. Her presence inside the building also hindered the police from taking Jackson into custody.

— The agencies who responded did not have an agreement in place to guide how they would act and communicate in a situation involving multiple departments.

— The panel was unable to determine whether law enforcement officers used the information they knew about Jackson to inform how they intervened, such as the fact that Jackson lived with mental illness and was suicidal; that he was experiencing a mental health crisis that day because it was the anniversary of watching his father kill his mother and then kill himself; and that Jackson was on probation and prohibited from carrying a gun.

— A snowstorm created poor driving conditions that night and tied up other officers from assisting at the scene. The Maine State Police Tactical Team, which typically responds to armed standoffs, was also unavailable that night because it was dealing with another incident.

— Maine Marine Patrol, the primary law enforcement agency on the scene, did not complete its internal review of the case until October 21, 2020, nearly three years after the shooting took place.

— Investigators with the attorney general’s office didn’t complete its legal review of the shooting until this summer, which “may have impacted the timely ability” for the responding officers to learn from its independent findings.

In light of those observations, the panel issued the following recommendations:

— Rural police departments depend on each other for support and therefore should regularly discuss how they would establish “command and control in critical incidents,” including how they would act in situations involving someone in a mental health crisis.

— Planning should include ways to centralize communication between officers and dispatch, such as by limiting radio traffic to only the officers responding to the scene and dispatchers.

— When police are dealing with someone on probation, they should notify the probation officer immediately, so he or she can help strategize how to resolve the conflict safely.

— If third parties are in danger — in this case, Smith, Jackson’s former girlfriend — officers should prioritize getting them to safety. The Maine Chiefs of Police Association has a framework policy for how police should approach a barricaded person or a hostage.

— Maine law requires law enforcement agencies to perform an internal review following the use of deadly force, and the reports should be completed as soon as practically possible so officers can learn from them without delay.

— For deadly force incidents that involve multiple departments, the responding agencies should conduct an additional review of the case as a group. The attorney general’s office could facilitate that review.

Fifteen people sit on the panel, including the commissioner of public safety, the director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the state medical examiner, the president of the Bangor chapter of the NAACP, the state’s chief forensic psychiatrist, the head of investigations for the Maine attorney general’s office, a police chief, a sheriff, a prosecutor, a domestic violence prevention advocate, three lawyers, a citizen and a representative from the Maine State Law Enforcement Association.