Maine State Police officials refused to release the agency’s policy governing pursuits a day after a high-speed chase on the Maine Turnpike injured multiple officers, destroyed two police cruisers and caused a massive traffic backup that, in turn, resulted in a deadly crash.

An attorney for the state police said Wednesday that the agency does not have to reveal its policy governing police pursuits, one of a dozen policies that each police department in Maine must maintain under state law. Portland police, by contrast, have freely provided their chase policy upon request.

The Portland Press Herald requested a copy of the policy Wednesday morning after the state police provided details of the chase and the crash that killed a couple from Falmouth. State police attorney Christopher Parr denied the records request hours later, saying its release could endanger officer safety, or “(d)isclose investigative techniques and procedures or security plans and procedures not known by the general public.”

“Accordingly, as a matter of law, the Maine State Police must deny, and is denying, your request for a copy of the policy,” Parr wrote in an email.

In response to follow-up questions, Parr said he would consider a request to release a redacted version of the chase policy. He did not respond to a request to justify why some sections would not be public record.

Sigmund D. Schutz, an attorney who represents the Press Herald in First Amendment matters, disagrees with Parr’s assessment that release of the policy could endanger officer security or compromise investigative techniques.

“This kind of law enforcement policy is not secret under Maine law,” Schutz said in an email. “A policy statement regarding the agency’s overall philosophy toward conducting vehicular pursuits and other related information is public information.”

The state police could redact sections of the policy if officials believe they could endanger police or the public, Schutz said, adding “I’m not convinced that there is anything in their policy that would justify secrecy.” Most police department pursuit policies are general in nature and can be broadly applied. Schutz said the policy likely does not describe police tactics.

“It’s a public record,” Schutz said. “I don’t see any justification for their response.”

Police policies on vehicle pursuits are one of a dozen policy areas that are tightly prescribed by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees. They are basic police accountability measures that have been deemed so important that every agency in Maine must maintain them with some measure of uniformity.

The state’s policy on pursuits would likely spell out when high-speed chases are appropriate, what methods are permissible by troopers to end a chase and what factors they must weigh before making such a decision.

The chase and crashes Tuesday began when police say David Stoddard, 49, of Topsham was driving a white Ford Super Duty pickup truck southbound on the Maine State Turnpike and towing an enclosed U-Haul trailer. Multiple witnesses reported that the truck was being driven erratically, police said.

Trooper Lee Vanadestine saw the pickup and pursued Stoddard, who refused to stop, police said. The pickup continued at high speed through three lanes of traffic, police said, nearly striking multiple cars.

Vanadestine attempted to end the chase by ramming into the trailer to disable it, but he lost control of his cruiser and crashed into the guardrail on the median, disabling his vehicle and sustaining minor injuries.

Trooper Jarrot MacKinnon continued the pursuit and a Kittery police officer attempted to deploy spike mats to disable the vehicle, but was unsuccessful, police said.

The pickup then rammed into a Kittery police lieutenant’s cruiser that was parked in the Mile 4.5 crossover in an attempt to assist with the pursuit, Maine State Police spokesperson Katy England said. Lt. John Desjardins, who was in the cruiser, received minor injuries.

Maine State Police Lt. Eric Baker, the commander of Troop G, whose troopers handled the arrest and chase, did not respond to two requests for an interview Wednesday. In lieu of an interview, a reporter submitted a detailed list of questions about the chase, the crash and state police policy, but no answers were provided Wednesday afternoon.

The precise timeline of events, as well as the risk assessments made by the officers involved, were not clear Wednesday. However, nearly an hour after the pursuit began, as traffic backed up in the northbound lanes because of the police activity, a three-vehicle crash occurred when a tractor-trailer driver failed to slow down or stop as he entered the congested area. His tractor struck an SUV in front of him, pushing it into the trailer of another truck.

Elizabeth and Geoffrey Gattis, both 68, died in the crash just after 2 p.m. Betsy Gattis was a retired copy editor at the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Geoff Gattis was a retired executive vice president of Bath Savings.

Mandatory minimum policies, including for high-speed chases, use of force and other activities, are available on the police academy’s website.

Every department must spell out its philosophy on police pursuits, for instance, and offer definitions for key terminology. They also must also include sections that discuss what factors police officers must take into consideration when they initiate a pursuit or decide to discontinue a chase, as well as prohibited practices. The policies spell out the responsibilities of the primary pursuing officer, any secondary officer and the responsibilities of the commander in charge at the time.

Last May, the Portland Police Department, the second largest department in the state behind the Maine State Police, released a copy of its pursuit policy without redacting a word, including sections describing when police should consider halting a pursuit because it might pose a risk to public safety that outweighs the interest of immediately apprehending the suspect who fled.

Portland’s governing philosophy on the operation of city-issued cruisers places as paramount the concern for the safety of all persons.

“No assignment shall be of such importance and no task shall be expedited with such emphasis that the principals of safety become secondary,” Portland’s policy says.

It also includes guidelines and rules for when a police pursuit is not permitted. For instance, if the only crime a driver is suspected of committing is a Class E misdemeanor, the lowest category of criminal conduct, a non-violent crime, a property crime, or a traffic violation.

Portland’s policy also spells out what factors an officer must take into consideration when deciding whether to pursue, such as the time of day, the visibility conditions, proximity to homes, people and schools, and the officer’s knowledge of the area.

The Maine State Police, like all departments, can deny the release of records based on sweeping exemptions in the state’s open records law that are enacted by the Legislature. They are so numerous in Maine that the Freedom of Access Act ombudswoman’s office offers a searchable database by keyword or topic to help the public navigate what is and is not a public record.

In practice, day-to-day decisions about what material is public is often made by front-line commanding officers, duty sergeants or in larger departments, as with the Maine Sate Police, in-house lawyers who interpret the laws. Some departments have dedicated Freedom of Access Act officers, whose sole responsibility is to process records requests.

Appealing the decision of a police department attorney can require a lawsuit in Superior Court, where a judge would be asked to interpret the law and apply it to the case and the records at hand. It’s a costly and time-consuming process that in the interim, delays the release of what later may be deemed public.

 

Comments are not available on this story.