Police chief cleared for using deadly force in 2021 shooting

12 months ago

Fort Fairfield Police Chief Matthew Cummings has been cleared in his use of deadly force during a 2021 incident in Presque Isle when he worked for the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office.

Shannon Wilcox, 53, of Presque Isle died on July 8, 2021 when Cummings shot him in self-defense, Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a letter to Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen Thursday.

The attorney general’s office investigates all cases of police use of deadly force to determine if the officers’ actions were justified, but it has never found an officer unjustified.

The incident started when Wilcox’s girlfriend reported to police that Wilcox was talking on his phone, waving a gun, pointing it at her and shooting into the air and on the ground, according to Frey’s report.

Presque Isle police officers Tyler Seeley and Daniel Varnum, who arrived first, ordered  Wilcox to drop the gun, but he refused, warned police away and continued talking on his phone. Officers said his speech was slurred and he seemed to stagger, the report said. 

He later was found to have had a blood-alcohol level of 0.202 percent. Under Maine law, anyone found driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is operating while under the influence. 

Presque Isle police Sgt. Lucas Hafford, who handled communications, called the sheriff’s office to ask for a deputy with a “less lethal” shotgun since Wilcox didn’t appear to be pointing the gun directly at police during negotiations with him, the report said.

When then-Sgt. Cummings and Deputy Shane Campbell arrived, Cummings went into a greenhouse on the property, cut a hole in the plastic covering and laid on his stomach with the shotgun pointed at Wilcox, while state police Sgt. Brian Harris and Presque Isle Sgt. Tyler Cote were beside the greenhouse with rifles, according to the report.

Wilcox became more and more agitated, putting his phone away and waving his handgun, telling officers to go away, the report said. At one point, Hafford heard Wilcox scream, “This is it. This is the end. We’re doing this. This is done.” 

From the hole in the greenhouse, Cummings shot “beanbag” rounds at Wilcox. 

Beanbag rounds are shotgun shells filled with fabric bags containing lead shot. They are meant to stop a person without penetrating the skin but can cause bruises and internal injuries and crack bones. Some police departments, including Phoenix, have suspended their use because of the injuries they can cause.

Wilcox fell on the third beanbag then got up and aimed his handgun toward the greenhouse, the report said. Officers ordered Wilcox to put the gun down, but he continued to aim at the greenhouse. Harris tried to fire his rifle but the weapon misfired. Cummings then shot at Wilcox, who fell. Officers tried to administer first aid but Wilcox died, according to the report.

Both Harris and Cummings reported they believed Wilcox was about to shoot them, the report said.

Police learned later that Wilcox had been talking to his sister on the phone, who repeatedly asked him to put the gun down. His sister said Wilcox seemed depressed and wanted to harm his girlfriend’s daughter and himself, the report said. 

Cummings reasonably believed Wilcox would shoot, used deadly force only after less lethal methods failed and acted in self-defense and in defense of other officers, Frey’s report concluded.