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Independent commission probes law enforcement communication amid reports of ‘chaotic’ police response to Maine mass shooting

The commission pressed Maine state police on information leaks, the disorganized response of plainclothes officers to the scene, and the search for the gunman at his former place of employment

Maine State Police Colonel William Ross answered questions from the Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston during a hearing at Lewiston City Hall.Russ Dillingham/Associated Press

Read more coverage of the Lewiston shootings.

LEWISTON, MAINE — A state commission investigating October’s mass shootings here on Friday probed leaks to media as part of its ongoing review, asking law enforcement officials if they were sufficiently organized in communicating details among agencies.

“Communication is critical, and communication can always be improved upon,” Maine State Police Colonel William Ross told the commission in his presentation. “Whether it’s the Lewiston incident or just a regular call, there can always be improvement... [and] that’s why we’re here.”

The commission’s latest meeting comes after the Associated Press reported Tuesday that the search for the gunman in the shooting was a scene of “utter chaos,” according to an after-action report by the Portland Police Department.


The report underscored the danger posed by a group of allegedly intoxicated officers who nearly crashed an armored vehicle while responding to the location where the gunman abandoned his car, as well as other officers “self-dispatching” to different scenes rather than being directed to go there by a superior.

The number of officers arriving in plainclothes, specifically in “similar clothing to the suspect,” risked officers mistaking one another for the gunman, the report said.

The gunman killed 18 people at a bowling alley and pool bar here in the state’s deadliest shooting.

Daniel Wathen, the chairperson of the independent commission, told the Associated Press this week that commissioners intended to address some of the report’s allegations, but others could be beyond the panel’s scope, including the allegations of drinking.

On Friday, Ross told the commission that he first addressed the issue of self-dispatching with the heads of police departments in the area during a virtual conference call two days after the shooting.

“Law enforcement agency heads [initially] felt they weren’t getting enough information from us,” he said, prompting him to convene a Microsoft Teams videocall. On the call, he said he warned department leaders about both self-dispatching and leaks to media, and told them, “if you see that happening, make sure you correct it with your people.” Ross said he didn’t call out any specific police departments but rather issued a general warning.


Commission member Ellen Gorman asked Ross directly if self-dispatch was “enough of a problem that policies need to be in place” for the future.

Ross said he would be “very cautious” about implementing any policy that would discourage officers from responding to a major emergency but that he was in favor of tightening up the incident command process and reinforcing self-dispatch protocol during trainings.

“Once a command post is set up, all of that comes together,” Ross added. “In the first few hours, it’s very chaotic and it needs to be organized... [and] that’s what command does.”

Commissioners posed additional questions to Maine State Police Sergeant Greg Roy, commander of the tactical team, about the agency’s assessment of its own investigation.

“An active crime investigation and an active manhunt happening at same time can be very challenging,” Roy said. “We had 16 different [tactical] SWAT teams operating — that’s never happened before. There were teams in Maine that have never operated in Maine before.”

Roy acknowledged that state police never identified the plainclothes officers who self-reported to the scene where the gunman’s empty car was found near a boat launch.


“We didn’t have any identities of anybody that was there, and we didn’t really have a process for doing that,” he said, adding that his team “didn’t even notice they were there while we were operating.”

Roy echoed the importance of self-dispatch as an “essential” part of police response to active shooter situations. But he acknowledged that once the gunman’s car was found and the situation transitioned to a manhunt, “the best practice is an organized apprehension effort and not self-deploying to certain sites, for efficiency and safety.”

The commission also focused Friday on the latter half of the search, pressing police on the delay in searching the overflow parking lot of Maine Recycling Center.

The shooter had once worked at the center, where his body was ultimately found two days after the mass shooting.

Wathen asked Roy why, when tactical teams searched the Maine Recycling building and surrounding property, they failed to search the overflow lot.

“The short answer is, they weren’t asked to,” Roy said, adding that at the time of the initial search, officers “were worried someone was hiding in the building” and unaware that the full extent of the recycling center’s property extended across the road into an overflow lot. “That just wasn’t part of the task... we weren’t aware that that was even related at the time.”

The commission also asked law enforcement if the release of confidential information could have been prevented, specifically an internal police bulletin from the Maine Information Analysis Center the night of the shooting and information about a note the gunman left at his home discovered a day later.


“We now have two incidents involving leaks,” commission member Paula Silsby said. “Moving forward, what policies have you implemented to address this issue of leaks, or is it just not possible?”

Ross said that identifying the source of a leak was “like looking for a needle in a haystack” and difficult to prioritize in the middle of an urgent investigation.

“Unfortunately, there’s always undisciplined people,” he said, adding that he believed that even if harsher discipline or new policies were to be implemented, “I think they’re going to do it regardless, [because of] the pull for information from outside.”

Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.