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Maine State Police Chief: Investigative Series Alleging Lack Of Transparency 'Failed To Strike Balance'

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

Maine State Police Chief John Cote is responding to a series of stories last week in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News that pointed to a lack of detail when State Police release information about the discipline of state troopers to the public.

Cote says the state follows rigorous standards in its hiring process, to bring in the best candidates possible and train them. But Cote says troopers are only human, and in misconduct cases that require discipline, he insists that the Maine State Police releases what information it can, and he told Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz he takes issue with recent news stories that claim otherwise.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Cote: The headlines that allege secrecy and concealment. Holding back information just is not how things work in this area. There are laws in place and I tried to present, you know, an opportunity to educate the people on those that I think wasn't presented in the article. And we rely heavily on our legal counsel and their interpretation of those laws.

Somewhere in there, that foundation that we shared with those that did this series of stories, they kind of failed to strike that balance of our perspective of why we couldn't be more forthcoming in some of our responses.

Gratz: You cited in your letter the exact provision in state law that governs what you can and cannot release about disciplinary actions. And it makes it very clear that accusations alone are not something that you can release. But once discipline has occurred, the statute appears to say you can release information. And beyond that it really doesn't say very much about what information you can release or can't. And I'm wondering if you can address that. How do you decide what to say about the accusation that may have been made against an officer who's been disciplined, as opposed to simply mention that discipline has occurred?

Cote: I think, you know, when law references a final discipline decision, we interpret that as our final notice back to the member at the completion of our investigation that highlights you know, the allegation that was made, our findings on the investigation of that allegation and then our proposed discipline. And, you know, that is our interpretation of what becomes the public record.

There may be different interpretations of the law that are different than our counsel's interpretation of it. But we rely on our counsel's interpretation. And again, we believe that our response was in full compliance and honoring the laws that are in place.

Gratz: So let me ask you this. You mentioned in your letter toward the bottom, you kind of rhetorically asked whether the law should perhaps be looked at and altered by the Legislature. Because they certainly have the ability to do that. And you did say in the letter as well that if the Legislature sought to do that, you'd be happy to kind of help them in that effort. So I'm curious. Are there any changes in the statute that you would like to see the Legislature adopt?

Cote: Well, I think certainly we welcome accountability and transparency, really across the public service sector, and not just in law enforcement, but every public service entity, or any position of public trust, that in these cases, candidly, had we been allowed to share more information, it actually would have been better for the parties involved, because us not being able to provide further information led people to assume the worst and think the worst.

Gratz: Certainly you understand at the moment with what's been going on all across the country, it's not unusual that people will look very closely at what you're doing, however well the troopers are doing it.

Cote: Absolutely. And again, we welcome that. And, you know, I wish that there were times that people could, you know, have an opportunity to ride for a couple shifts with our troopers, and see just the amount of services they provide, how wide the variety of topics that they need to deal with, and the skills and expertise that they have, and how they deal with people every day, and make things better. And I think, you know, I've told our people, this is my 32nd year with the State Police. And when I came on, I like to say we understood we were under a magnifying glass. But I certainly agree with your comments that in the last several years, law enforcement really is under more of a microscope, and under a level of scrutiny that really is unprecedented. And we welcome that. We understand the positions that we're in.