The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition sent Freedom of Access Act requests to 135 law enforcement agencies across Maine last year, seeking records of people’s complaints and disciplinary letters over five years.

After receiving the request for records, some departments presented the coalition with an abundance of disciplinary records, while others offered only basic information that lacked identifiable details.

One in five did not respond, despite being required to do so under Maine’s public access law.

Among the disciplinary actions reported by law enforcement agencies, an Auburn police officer was admonished after leaving headquarters with his loaded service pistol in plain sight inside his open locker. The officer received a verbal reprimand, according to one of the disciplinary records provided by the Auburn Police Department.

Other Auburn police records show multiple officers received oral or written warnings when they failed to show up at court hearings or for their scheduled shifts, and three officers were disciplined for more serious infractions.

In Mexico, the Police Department did not create written disciplinary records for two sustained complaints of rudeness and conduct unbecoming an officer. It is unclear whether any public records detailing the incidents exist because they were not provided to the coalition.

Similarly, a three-sentence disciplinary letter issued to a Windham police officer stated he was suspended for 40 hours, but provided no information as to why, beyond referencing Article 17 of “the contract.”

Many departments, including Augusta, Monmouth and Rumford, supplied registers with the most basic details, but did not provide the actual disciplinary letters.

Thirty agencies did not respond to the Freedom on Access Act request, including sheriff’s offices in Aroostook, Washington and York counties.

In January 2021, the nonprofit coalition submitted public records requests to law enforcement agencies related to people’s complaints and police disciplinary records, including all municipal police departments, all of Maine’s county sheriffs’ offices, and a few state agencies.

The requests sought access to the total number of complaints received, their type, time period from the initial complaint to determination of discipline, and copies of all final written disciplinary letters from January 2016 to January 2021.

All correspondence and the records obtained by the coalition, which is made up of representatives of Maine’s news media, librarians and other public access advocates, were made public this week.

The coalition board members say the informal audit demonstrated a need to standardize the creation and maintenance of complaints and disciplinary records in law enforcement agencies.

“In this particular case, it makes sense if complaints are filed, to have a system for determining how they are handled that is consistent across the state,” coalition President Jim Campbell said. “What’s the process of generating and maintaining the records? That is the question. That, as far as I know, is not mandated in any way and is not consistent across different departments or different levels of policing.”

Disciplinary action, too, was highly variable. When an officer failed to pay the Skowhegan Police Department the balance of $9.95 he owed for the purchase of an external vest, he was ordered to pay that balance and to write an original 500-word essay on the importance of following orders. When writing, he was ordered to use Times New Roman size 12 font, single spaced, with 1 inch margins and citations.

In Waterville, two officers were disciplined for holding down a 12-year-old boy by his wrists and ankles in 2018 as the child’s mother spanked him. One of the officers was suspended without pay for three days. The second officer was suspended for two days.

The purpose of the project was not necessarily to compile a database of complaints and disciplinary records, said coalition Vice President Judith Meyer, who is also executive editor of the Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Rather, the organization sought to gauge how agencies respond to Freedom of Access Act requests, as well as the availability and thoroughness of complaint and disciplinary records.

“The problem, I think, is that having records is not perceived to be a core responsibility for a lot of agencies,” Campbell said. “To their mind, dealing with the everyday things they have to deal with, it’s just one more dumb thing that they have to pay attention to. Except it isn’t a dumb thing.”

In one notable instance, the South Portland police chief promised to remove a reprimand from an officer’s personnel file six months after the reprimand if the behavior were not repeated. The removal date was set at Nov. 14, 2020. However, the department provided that record to the coalition as part of its response to the records request in January 2021, months after the officer was told the document would be removed.

Under state law — Title 30-A for municipalities and counties and Title 5 for state employees — final written decisions of discipline taken against public employees are not confidential, and the decisions are required to contain enough information about the details of the conduct for the public to understand the basis on which the disciplinary action was imposed, and what that action was.

There is no allowance for removal of disciplinary records from personnel files.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, serves on the Judiciary Committee in the state Legislature, where he is a strong advocates for law enforcement reform. He said he has found it difficult and, at times, impossible to obtain clear disciplinary records for serious wrongdoing.

“The police (should) be held accountable to the same laws that you and I have to follow,” Evangelos said. “And if they break them, they (should) be held to the same standards, and it should be public information.”

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition board members were inspired to pursue the unofficial audit after learning about the joint investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News into the redaction of information in Maine State Police disciplinary records.

“If we had done this as a journalistic project, I would have hammered every one of those police chiefs to get me a response within 30 days, or something like that, and then written back to them again, and again, and again until we got it,” Meyer said. “This was more of a point-in-time survey. We’re going to send it out, see what we get, and let the public know what we found.”

All but 10 of the departments that responded waived search and copying fees, under the provision in the Freedom of Access Act that fees may be waived in the public interest “because doing so is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government.” The coalition withdrew requests from five agencies which requested more than $200 in fees.

Those five departments were the Maine Warden Service, the police departments in Sanford, Brewer and Belfast, and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

At least 10 of the agencies that responded redacted information, including the Maine State Police; the sheriff’s offices in Oxford, Waldo and Piscataquis counties; and police departments in Cumberland, Scarborough, Farmington, Fairfield, Pittsfield and Kittery.

State law allows disciplinary records to be redacted only if an employee who has been disciplined appeals the decision and wins, according to Meyer.

If a decision is overturned, the employee’s name may be redacted from the otherwise public document, unless the employee publicly discloses the discipline on their own.

“The statute is really clear that a final disciplinary letter is a public document,” Meyer said. “It doesn’t say ‘except for.’ It says the whole record is a public record, so when we strike the content out of what is supposed to be a public record, it just raises questions and, for some people, it may raise suspicions.”

The Pittsfield Police Department redacted one of three final written decisions made available to the coalition. It was dated Feb. 24, 2020, involving a sergeant. The letter concludes the officer engaged in conduct that discredited the department. He was issued a written reprimand, but there is no detail of that conduct.

Two other disciplinary letters were not redacted, including one very detailed decision issued to police Pittsfield Chief Pete Bickmore in March 2020 by Town Manager Kathryn Ruth for violating COVID-19 protocols, violating a directive to leave the office when he was sick and joking about the pandemic in early 2020.

The chief was instructed to read state Center for Disease Control & Prevention guidance and the governor’s directives on COVID-19 protocols, follow the instructions of Emergency Management Director Bernard Williams, provide medical clearance to return to work and apologize to all of his co-workers.

Standardizing the type of information disciplinary records should and should not contain could lead to fewer redactions and increased public trust, Meyer said.

“It was clear from Auburn, because we’ve got dozens of (disciplinary letters), that that’s a high priority for them, that officers are held accountable,” Meyer said. “The public should know that, for the good, as well as when officers misbehave, that the department itself is upholding its standards in a very regular, consistent way.”

The issues are not only with law enforcement agencies. Other public service sectors struggle to maintain records, too.

According to data from the Office of State Fire Marshal, 61% of fire departments in Maine submitted at least one report to the state in 2020, despite being mandated to do so for every response under the law.

From 2016 to 2020, Maine Public Access Ombudsman Brenda Kielty received 429 inquiries and complaints related to municipalities, compared to 85 for law enforcement, according to annual reports from the Office of Attorney General.

Most members of the public are not familiar with navigating Freedom of Access Act laws, so it is important that requesting records be as simple as possible, Meyer said. When people encounter barriers, they may feel their only option is to give up.

“I’ve seen it happen too many times,” Meyer said. “I wish it would never happen. But you know, people don’t necessarily have the perseverance to just, you know, push and push and push until they get a record.”

Oftentimes, when people meet resistance, they contact the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, journalists or the state public records ombudsman for help, according to Meyer.

“Everybody’s willing to help,” she said, “but the best help would be if the records are available and accessible to the public when they ask for it.”


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