Apr. 27—Maine lawmakers are moving to create a statewide code of conduct for police officers that would be enforced by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and provide the public with more information about misconduct and discipline.
The bill is likely require police departments to report additional cases of misbehavior to the academy, which serves as the statewide police licensing authority. The Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 7-0 Friday in support of the bill, with six legislators absent. The missing lawmakers have until Tuesday to vote.
The votes are an indicator that legislators are willing to take on police oversight reform, but it's unclear yet where Gov. Janet Mills stands on the issues.
For nearly a year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, communities in Maine and across the country have demanded a renegotiation of what constitutes public safety and good policing. But as demonstrations swept the state and the nation, all legislative work in Maine was placed on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, delaying hearings for many bills, including the proposed code of conduct.
Last week, the Maine Sunday Telegram and Bangor Daily News published a joint three-part investigation that showed how the Maine State Police avoid disclosing public information about trooper misconduct, and take an aggressive stance on what may be withheld from public view, resulting in a pattern of secrecy at the state's largest police agency. Over more than five years, in 65 cases where troopers were found to have committed misconduct, police released records describing only 20 cases involving 19 officers, and in most of them, it was impossible to tell what conduct led to the discipline.
Final discipline decisions in Maine are public records, but there was not enough information in all but seven of the state police cases to understand what the trooper got in trouble for, defying the intent of legislators who 30 years ago decided that records describing misconduct by state employees should be visible to the public.
On Monday, Col. John Cote released a statement defending the state police, saying the agency is following state laws that define what information must be released about discipline cases, and passed responsibility to lawmakers to create new standards.
"We understand and support transparency, but we are obligated to follow the laws in place," Cote wrote. "Should public agencies include more information about misconduct in disciplinary records? Should the law be clarified or amended? Those are policy questions for lawmakers to consider and we will do our best to answer their questions and provide them with information and our perspective as they take these questions into consideration."
The joint investigation by the newspapers showed that although other agencies such as sheriff's offices consistently share more information, the Maine State Police lag in releasing details about misconduct. The Maine State Police choose to provide such information in a small number of cases, all involving relatively minor discipline.
Mills did not respond to specific questions posed to her office, but her office said she is open to the discussion.
"The governor is open to having a constructive dialogue with the Attorney General's Office, members of law enforcement, relevant labor organizations, policy makers, and others to assess state laws governing the disciplinary process and resulting public records," said Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills.
Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said Monday that she is concerned about the leeway that individual agencies have in interpreting exceptions to the open records law.
"There should be a standard policy," Keim said. "That way there's no favoritism, and there's no question, and we have confidence in what's happening and there's proper accountability there."
Responding to Cote's statement, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said she "absolutely" believes there is a culture of secrecy at the Maine State Police. She has struggled to get the agency to provide her with information before, she said, and urged Cote to take a proactive approach to preserve public trust.
"At some point you trust that the best predictor of future behavior his past behavior," Warren said, adding later: "If I was almost a year into a reckoning about criminal justice practices and policing practices across this country, I'd be doing a lot more, and sooner, to be a lot more transparent."
The bill to create a new code of conduct was sponsored by Rep. David H. McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, and carried over from the last session.
If McCrea's bill, L.D. 505, is passed into law, the measure would permit the criminal justice academy board to use a rule-making process to develop statewide conduct standards for every certified police officer. Currently, police chiefs across the state are required by law to report to the board criminal conduct by police, regardless of whether the officer faces charges for that conduct. For instance, if an officer drove drunk but did not get arrested for operating under the influence, that case would go before the Criminal Justice board.
But not all police misconduct can be defined by criminal laws, leaving trustees of the academy with an incomplete picture of officer transgressions throughout Maine. For example, an officer who lies or is untruthful or commits sexual harassment may not have their case reported to the trustees.
The rule-making process would involve many stakeholders and include comment from the public and police, and if successful, could give the criminal justice academy board authority to take action in a greater number of police misconduct cases.
"We're frankly excited to do that, and frustrated at times when we cannot take action against an officer's credential when there was conduct ... we want to deal with," said Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
The language of McCrea's legislation has not yet been drafted, but in written testimony, McCrea said the contours of the bill were developed last year with input from Desjardins, Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Sauschuck, and Marc Malon and Brian MacMaster, two senior members of the Attorney General's Office.
An amendment to the bill, proposed by Warren, would ensure the results of the misconduct cases would become a public record, and that the public record would include a minimum level of detail describing what the officer did wrong and the facts of the case that led to the discipline.
Warren, as a co-chair of the committee, shepherded the legislation and the amendments, and said in an interview Monday that she expects more legislation to emerge from the committee this week.
"There are a lot of people who are going, 'We've got to get some accountability here and we've got to get some oversight,'" Warren said. "It's not a partisan issue."
In a separate bill, L.D. 513, that was passed the same day by the same margin, committee members voted to add two non-law enforcement members to the Criminal Justice Academy board committee that examines the misconduct cases. Currently, the panel consists of three board members without a stipulation that a certain number have no affiliation with law enforcement.