Press Herald sues Maine State Police over concealed discipline records

Matt Byrne, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·4 min read

Feb. 23—The Portland Press Herald filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Maine State Police seeking to pry loose disciplinary records that could shed light on how the agency handles complaints of misconduct and rule-breaking among its ranks.

The Maine State Police redacted key parts of disciplinary records or withheld some records entirely in their response to requests for information regarding officer discipline requested by the newspaper. Final disciplinary measures against public employees are public records in Maine.

The suit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, centers on requests for information filed under the state's Freedom of Access Act seeking final decisions of discipline for all personnel employed by the Department of Public Safety finalized between 2015 and 2019.

In response to the request, the state handed over documents involving disciplinary cases of 22 officers. But in 13 of those cases, the records were either too heavily redacted or too vague to provide any meaningful description of the conduct that gave rise to the discipline.

The agency also provided incomplete records, in some cases even withholding public documents that were referenced in the released information. The Maine State Police also refused to cite a specific legal justification for each redaction in the record, claiming that to do so would somehow reveal the contents of the redacted information itself.

The Bangor Daily News had submitted the same request for disciplinary records and last month filed its own lawsuit over the redactions to the disciplinary records. Tuesday's filing by the Press Herald indicates that the two cases could be consolidated and go before a single judge.

"The public has the basic right to keep a watchful eye on how law enforcement disciplines its own — especially those public employees who have the power to arrest us," said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald. "The state police has consistently held itself above Maine law that clearly requires transparency because there's no penalty for doing so."

The Office of the Attorney General, which defends most lawsuits filed against the state, declined a request to comment. Christopher Parr, the attorney for the Maine State Police, forwarded a request for comment to police command staff.

The lawsuit is being supported by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, where third-year law students assist media organizations across the country advocate for greater government transparency through legal action.

Michael Linhorst, an attorney and fellow at the clinic, said he is on a team of four attorneys who oversee the work of about 30 students. The clinic is among several around the country that help news organizations that lack the resources to more frequently take the government to court, he said.

"Getting these sorts of documents out to the public will enable voters to hold the police and their government accountable and really understand what's going on with police who are supposed to be protecting and serving," Linhorst said.

Under state law, any agency that redacts information must cite the statute granting it authority to withhold the information. Some categories of confidential information include medical records, home addresses, and social security numbers.

But some redactions appear to withhold the only description of a trooper's conduct. That was the case for one sergeant who was suspended for 30 days, and another trooper was suspended for 20 days. Sentences that appear to describe their conduct are redacted, or blacked out.

Other records, including settlement agreements between the union representing a trooper and the police agency formed to settle a dispute about discipline, were unsigned by the parties involved, making it impossible to know whether the record produced was in fact ratified, or if some other document may be in effect.

"The interest in public access to public employee disciplinary decisions is particularly compelling when the employees in question are law enforcement officers vested with great public authority, including the power to make arrests, detain citizens, and use force," the Press Herald's attorney, Sigmund Schutz, wrote in the suit. "Public awareness of whether law enforcement agencies are engaged in effective oversight and discipline of officers serves as a vital check on police corruption and misconduct — an interest at the core of what FOAA is all about."