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Courts and Crime

Investigative Series Shows Lack Of Accountability For Maine State Police Misconduct

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Linda Coan O'Kresik
/
Bangor Daily News
The Maine State Police barracks are pictured in Bangor on Feb. 18, 2021.

The Bangor Daily News and the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald have partnered for a series of stories looking at the lack of accountability for police misconduct among the Maine State Police.

The series was published this week beginning on Sunday in the Telegram and completing Monday and Tuesday in the Press Herald.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with several of the people involved in the project: from the Bangor Daily News, investigative reporter Callie Ferguson and Maine Focus editor Erin Rhoda, and from the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald, Matt Byrne.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: Callie, you helped kick off this investigation. What was it that kind of tipped off the paper that there was a story here?

Ferguson: So at the end of 2020, I opened my email and saw that the State Police had fulfilled a request I made about six months ago for about five years worth of state trooper discipline records. Scrolling through the records, I noticed that it was really hard to actually understand why most of the troopers had been disciplined, because the records were written in such a vague way. So I reached out to my editor Erin, and asked maybe the lack of information here is the story.

Erin wrote the second story in the series, which focused on the lack of discipline resultant from police misconduct. Talk a little bit about that, and how, if at all, you think that might be related to lack of complete information that seemed to be out there.

Rhoda: In Maine, we know that when public employees are punished for misbehaving, their final record of discipline is public. But, of course, we know that the State Police did not provide a ton of detail in these records. And their argument was that while the law might make the records public, the law doesn't require them to fully describe the misconduct underlying the punishment. We looked through all sorts of records, we interviewed people connected to the troopers' cases to piece together what the records hid. We found that one trooper hindered an investigation into a loved one's hit-and-run, he received a two-day suspension. Another initially kept secret that he saw a fellow officer punch a handcuffed man in the face, he received a one-day suspension. We sent our findings to two criminal justice experts who said that the punishments were minimal, and one went so far as to say the discipline was so light, it almost seemed to encourage misconduct. Even severe misconduct can be left out of public records entirely and, therefore, out of the public eye. This happens when officers are allowed to resign with no public record indicating why, or they're allowed to destroy their discipline history, in some instances.

And of course, one of the things that is does is it kind of prevents the State Police as an agency or anyone interested in oversight from figuring out how, perhaps, procedures ought to be changed or corrected to avoid the misconduct.

Rhoda: We spoke with a number of lawmakers who said that not having this type of information about misconduct makes it more difficult to know how to enact policy changes, and a number of them said that they were interested in requiring the discipline records to be more specific to address the misconduct.

Matt, your piece focused on a specific series of incidents. Tell us about that.

Byrne: My piece focused on the story of Amy Burns, who met and married a state trooper, Justin "Jay" Cooley. And over a short period of time, it became clear to Amy that her husband, Jay, had a serious problem with alcohol and that became a violent situation. And as the violence escalated in their relationship, Amy described to me the feelings of frustration and powerlessness as she sought at first to get her husband help for his drinking and then reporting to her husband's superiors his violent behavior. Her experience was a frightening example of what domestic violence researchers say is the drastic power imbalance among abusive relationships that is only heightened when the alleged abuser, in this case, is a police officer. The dynamic of power and control that police are taught to use in their daily lives can come home. And when mixed with alcohol, the results in this case were frightening for her. And what she was met with was resistance from State Police.

And what's striking about that is it comes at a time when police have increasingly been urged not to wait, not to hold back on action when involved with cases of apparent domestic violence, because of the potential harm.

Byrne: That's correct. And in Maine, the problem has been known for quite some time, that a substantial percentage of homicides every year are connected to intimate partner violence. The State Police policy is very specific, it's extensive and research-based. In this case, they sent him to a rehab and treated the case, in her eyes, as a personnel issue when anybody else may have received an immediate police response.

It also sounds like at least some procedures, at least in the case of Amy Burns, are in place to suggest a proper response, but just were not followed. So the failure here is a failure of individuals, rather than the system that is supposed to be operating.

Callie: Something that we heard a lot from the experts that we interviewed for this series, and something that we tried to explore, is the way in which transparency and the willingness to be forthcoming about mistakes builds public trust, which is extremely important for members of the public to have in police officers, because they have so much power. I think especially that's true at a time like now, when we are looking a lot more critically about how police exercise that power.