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Report finds inconsistent response to request for police discipline records in Maine

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

A new report released Friday said police agencies across Maine have widely inconsistent practices when it comes to tracking and disclosing complaints against officers. The group behind the report also stated that some police departments charged "excessive" rates for providing what is public information.

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition requested data on citizen complaints and disciplinary actions against officers from 135 law enforcement agencies, both large and small. Some provided only aggregate data while others handed over details on complaints and the department's response. But roughly 20% of agencies didn't respond at all.

Judith Meyer, who represents the Maine Press Association on the coalition, said the results show the need for a more consistent, statewide approach to ensure that agencies are complying with the state's public records law, the Freedom of Access Act.

"This was really more of a look at what a nonjournalist is facing, and there is no standardization,” said Meyer, who is executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel newspapers. “So if you're not familiar with FOAA, and not enough people are in my opinion, it's just a much harder road to navigate. And I hope the results illustrate that."

The coalition's report was released several months after a joint investigation by the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald highlighted a lack of transparency at the Maine State Police when it comes to disciplinary measures against officers.

The newspapers requested roughly five years of disciplinary records from the state police. But because of incomplete or in some cases nonexistent records, the papers were not able to discern what prompted the punishments meted out to 12 of 19 officers during that time.

Meyer said the coalition sent requests to the 135 law enforcement agencies last January as a way to supplement that investigation into the Maine State Police. While most agencies did not charge anything for supplying the documents, nine of them did. The highest charge, for $353, came from the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. And the coalition withdrew that request along with several others after determining that the charges were excessive.

"If you're just a person and you live in Brewer, which is one of the departments that charged a high fee, and you want access to these records for reasons that are your own, and you get a bill for more than $200, that's a hurdle for some people,” Meyer said. “And sometimes that's a hurdle that cannot be crossed."

The coalition, which includes media organizations as well as other groups that advocate for public access to documents, isn't calling for any specific policy changes. And Meyer said she believes that some of the issues of inconsistency or lack of transparency can, or should, be handled within the law enforcement community.

"I don't even know if the Legislature needs to get involved, necessarily,” Meyer said. “My hope would be that maybe the Maine Chiefs of Police Association would take a look at these results and look at their membership and say, 'Alright, let's figure out a way to,' and I'm not trying to be punny, 'to self-police this process.'"

The purpose of the project was to gauge how police agencies responded to requests for these public records. But the records also provide a glimpse into disciplinary actions at some departments.

For instance, two Waterville officers were suspended without pay for several days for reportedly holding down a child’s ankles and wrist so his mother could spank him. Another Waterville officer was allegedly demoted for having a sexual extramarital affair while on duty. And the Pittsfield police chief received a disciplinary letter for reportedly not following Maine CDC guidelines while ill.