Self-deploying officers and a leaked bulletin complicated Maine mass shooting response, police say

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Maine's top police leader addressed the chaos caused by officers arriving without assignments after the state's deadliest mass shooting, saying Friday that he was glad so many officers were eager to help, even though it was difficult to manage at times.

Col. William Ross, the state police chief, said there's no “overarching policy” on self-dispatching police officers and said that it's actually a good thing in an active shooter situation such as Lewiston's, in which police were responding to multiple locations.

“Keep ’em coming. Because that's what we need," Ross said. But, he added, it's important for officers to be disciplined once a command structure is established.

Ross also spoke about how leaks of investigatory details including an early bulletin, which was distributed moments later on social media, and news media reports of a note discovered at the gunman's home complicated an already difficult search for the shooter.

Law enforcement officials, including Ross, returned for more testimony at the request of an independent commission, which was focusing Friday on problems with police communication and coordination in the fraught hours after Maine’s deadliest mass shooting Oct. 25.

Eighteen people were killed and 13 injured by an Army reservist at a bowling alley and a bar. The shooter, 40-year-old Robert Card, fled in a vehicle that was abandoned in a nearby town.

Chair Daniel Wathen previously noted “disturbing allegations” were contained in a Portland special response team after-action report that criticized officers who were showing up unannounced. That report also included allegations that some officers arrived intoxicated, but the commission said allegations of misconduct should be handled by the agencies themselves.

The commission previously heard testimony from law enforcement officials about that evening, when law enforcement agencies mobilized for a search as additional police officers poured into the region. State police took over coordination of the search for the gunman, who was found dead from suicide two days later.

Some of the tensest moments came when law enforcement located the gunman’s vehicle near the Androscoggin River several hours after the shooting.

State police used a cautious approach, angering some officers who wanted to immediately search the nearby woods. Officers without any official assignment began showing up, raising concerns of police firing on one another in the darkness. The arrival of so many officers also contaminated the scene, making it all but impossible to use dogs to track the gunman.

At one point, a tactical vehicle from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office nearly crashed into another tactical vehicle from the Portland Police Department near that scene.

Ross said the fact that so many officers responded to put themselves in harm's way was a “proud moment,” but he acknowledged that having so many officers arriving from different agencies caused confusion. The problem of well-meaning officers improvising on the fly diminished once a command post was set up, he added.

“As the hours went by, less and less of that happened,” he said. “And then there's outliers. There will always be someone who operates outside the norm or the command post. And you deal with those things as they come up.”

Ross said the combination of multiple scenes, the gunman’s disappearance and the manhunt made the tragedy different from other mass shootings around the country.

“This is something that I think is very unique,” Ross said.

As for the leaks, Ross said that they were frustrating but that the agency is not focused on trying to find those who leaked information, calling it a “needle in a haystack.” He also noted that leaks are common in large law enforcement actions involving multiple agencies.

The commission investigating the events leading up to the shooting and its aftermath was appointed by the governor and is composed of seven members, including mental health professionals and former prosecutors and judges. Wathen is a former Maine chief justice.

Prior meetings of the panel, which is expected to issue a final report in summer, have focused on victims, Army personnel and members of Card’s family, in addition to law enforcement officials.

Card’s relatives said during a hearing last week that they struggled to get help for him as his mental health declined and his behavior became more erratic. At another hearing, a fellow reservist detailed his attempts to flag Card’s decline for their superiors.

An interim report issued by the panel in March said law enforcement should have seized Card’s guns and put him in protective custody before he committed the shooting.


Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.

05/24/2024 18:15 -0400

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