Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced her intention to form a commission to investigate the events leading up to and following the shooting in Lewiston that took the lives of 18 people and wounded over a dozen more. Putting aside for the moment whether this commission is better suited to be established by law through the State Legislature, the commission’s structure and approach ought to involve, at the very least, the following.
Commissioners must be independent and represent a cross section of relevant disciplines and backgrounds, no activists. To ensure adequate span of control and management, the commission should be odd numbered and be no larger than 11 and no smaller than five people. Next, full-time staff to support the commission will have to be identified, including individuals with experience in conducting after action evaluations and free from any conflicts of interest. As a reference, the budget for the review of the Virginia Tech mass shooting of 2007 was $460,000.
Once empaneled, the commission’s work should take no more than 12 to 18 months to complete, possibly less, assuming it is adequately resourced and not outsized in its membership. Much of the commission’s work should be done in open hearings where witnesses, including the shooter’s friends, family, co-workers, and personnel from all the relevant agencies and institutions, can provide sworn testimony. The final report should be a public document that lays out the commission’s findings of what happened and why.
Through its enabling legislation or by executive order, the scope of the commission’s assessment must be properly set, both in terms of the timeframe under review and the issues it will explore. The timeframe should be bookended from the moment the shooter’s abnormal behavior was brought to the attention of a person in authority to when the shooter’s body was found.
Within the timeframe, the commission should divide its investigation into three broad phases of inquiry – the events leading up to the attack, the immediate response from law enforcement and emergency medical personnel to the two sites that were assaulted, and finally, the man hunt. These areas can be further divided but they represent a broad strategic outline for the work to start. Across each of the three phases, the commission must create a detailed timeline of all the major events that took place within the overall timeframe.
For phase one, as so many have noted, the examination of events leading up to the shooting must address why Maine’s yellow flag law was not applied here, along with other state and federal statutes that may have been implicated by the shooter’s erratic, threatening, and violent conduct leading up to the mass shooting.
Under phase two, the emphasis should be on how quickly law enforcement responded to the incident, whether they followed protocols to actively engage and neutralize the shooter, as opposed to the Parkland, Florida and Uvalde, Texas school shootings where they did not, and how quickly emergency medical personnel were able to render aid to the wounded, and transport them to area hospitals, etc. A review of the hospitals and how they managed such a large influx of injured may also be in order or could be looked at separately.
In reviewing the man hunt, major issues will include whether the Maine State Police, the lead investigative agency following the shooting, established unified command consistent with the National Incident Management System with the myriad law enforcement agencies that poured into the area from across Maine and New England. How were search tactics determined and implemented, was information collected and shared across federal, state, and local law enforcement, and was command and control adequately established for the scores of officers that likely self-deployed to the area in what was one of the largest law enforcement operations in the history of the state? Following the marathon bombing in Boston in 2013, these and other issues were major challenges for the state police there.
Finally, a careful and methodical approach to uncovering the facts wherever they may lead must guide the commission’s work, while simultaneously avoiding a devolution into finger pointing among the people and agencies involved.