Maine police found a way to keep misconduct secret. Lawmakers are paying attention.

This article will teach you everything you need to know about how Maine cops discovered a way to keep their misconduct hidden. Legislators are taking notice.
Maine lawmakers will debate whether or not to require public employers to document employees’ misconduct in public records in the coming months, but legislators stopped short of saying they would sponsor legislation to do so.

Now that public employers, such as police departments and jails, are required to make discipline information public, the Bangor Daily News has discovered that they frequently use imprecise language that obscures officer wrongdoing.

In the early 1990s, Maine lawmakers on the judiciary committee attempted to strike a balance between government accountability and private privacy by ensuring that public employees’ discipline would remain public information while complaints and internal affairs investigations would remain confidential.

However, the regulation didn’t say much about the high quality of self-discipline information or what they needed to embody, and information is sometimes imprecise to the point of being incomprehensible many years later.

Late last month, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Maine State Police had unlawfully redacted portions of discipline information provided to the BDN and Portland Press Herald, which had sued the company while working on an investigation into its disciplinary practices. Even after the state police removed the redactions, it wasn’t always clear how an officer misbehaved.

When asked if she wants the law changed to require public employers to disclose details of misconduct, she said no. Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, stated she intends to place the matter on the agenda of the Right to Know Advisory Committee, which works to maintain the integrity of Maine’s Freedom of Access laws. The panel can make recommendations to the judiciary committee, which drafts laws.

“I believe it’s critical for a final written decision imposing disciplinary action to include information about the rationale for self-discipline,” she said. “I believe that requiring specifics about conduct that is the foundation of self-discipline is a critical issue for the Right to Know Advisory Committee and the Legislature to address.”

Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, chairs the Proper to Know Advisory Committee, and he agreed that discipline information could be a topic of discussion when the committee meets before the Maine Legislature convenes in January.

“I believe the regulation we now have is good, but it has been abused,” he stated. “The final disciplinary document, which is not secret, must define the behaviour and self-discipline.” If they aren’t, I think they’re being written in a way that purposely contradicts the purpose of the Freedom of Entry Act.”

Enshrining clearer guidelines in law would ensure that public entities understand their obligations while protecting the public’s right to know, according to Rep. Erin Sheehan, D-Biddeford.

“Can a document be called a document if it isn’t descriptive and clear?” “The public has a right to know the fine print of proven public employee misbehavior, and if the information about such conduct isn’t meaningful, the public is effectively kept out,” Sheehan said.

Not every member of the judicial committee was troubled by the current situation of self-discipline information.

“In my perspective, I believe the senior officer’s judgment if he does not need to reveal what the wrongdoing is and keeps it throughout the division,” said Rep. James Thorne, R-Carmel. “If they’re not breaking the rules, they shouldn’t have to.” I’m leaving it up to their discretion to decide, ‘The reality that I reprimanded them for wrongdoing is sweet enough.’”

Nonetheless, Thorne said he would give the issue further thought if a bill to change current legislation came before the committee.

Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said she is open to considering any new legislation, but she is concerned about police being penalized twice for wrongdoing, first by their employment and then in a court of public opinion.

“I don’t believe that decisions concerning personnel information should be based primarily on the interests or requirements of the media,” she said. “Individuals should question the objective of such reporting and consider if doing so may be interpreted as double jeopardy.”

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he would propose legislation to increase openness if he sought for re-election.

“To be honest, it’s disgusting that it required a decision to instruct Maine police to follow the rule of law.” “That’s a news release in and of itself,” he said.

A statement in a self-discipline document was blacked out by the state police that explained how a corporal intentionally inflated his cruiser speedometer and then made a fake distance declaration, resulting in a 20-day unpaid suspension.

However, the corporation also blacked out more ambiguous definitions of wrongdoing, such as for a sergeant who got a 30-day suspension for providing “inappropriate orders to a subordinate leading to misconduct,” according to the unredacted document.

“You also neglected to provide the right channel linked with photographic proof of the misbehavior,” the letter stated.

A BDN examination of thousands of self-discipline records from Maine’s 16 county sheriff’s offices discovered that they used increasingly imprecise language as the punishments became more severe, leaving the general public in the dark about what actually occurred, whether or not self-discipline is equitable across workplaces and violations, and whether or not elected sheriffs are holding their employees accountable.

In one instance, disciplinary records revealed that Kennebec County prison officials penalized three officers for failing to check on an inmate who had sought medical attention or alert the medical division, amongst other policy infractions.

However, the report did not include that the convict, who had psychiatric and physical impairments, died of a burst spleen after asking for help for seven to eight hours, which the broader public would only learn about because of details revealed in a lawsuit.

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