AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers got few answers to key questions on Wednesday about how the secretive Maine State Police unit at the center of a bombshell federal lawsuit operates.
Members of the legislative panels overseeing police and courts seemed frustrated that they could not get more precise details on how the Maine Information and Analysis Center holds itself accountable or how it keeps Mainers safe during a much-anticipated hearing with Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and Attorney General Aaron Frey.
It came after the so-called “ fusion center” gained attention when state police Trooper George Loder filed a federal lawsuit in May alleging it has illegally gathered personal data — which the state has denied — and weeks of protests over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and other Black people at the hands of police.
Sauschuck described the center as an information-gathering unit that collects data and passes it off to partnering agencies. It is part of a nationwide network of centers and operates under guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It does not do investigations or physically observe individuals, but monitors social media pages to collect information on people. Many of them are not accused of crimes, he said, but some who are watched could make threats that are passed on to police agencies. The center does not use facial recognition or tracking technology, but some partners do, Sauschuck said.
However, Sauschuck did not know the answers to some relatively basic questions on Wednesday, including how much time the center spends on collecting information on organizations not engaged in criminal activity or how its advisory board is meant to operate.
Some questions lawmakers submitted about the center’s alleged activities — like surveillance of Seed of Peace summer camp employees and Central Maine Power protestors and an alleged database of gun owners — were not addressed because of the pending litigation.
Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the criminal justice panel, seemed doubtful the agency did much to keep Mainers safe, asking Sauschuck to defend the agency’s $700,000 annual budget.
“In my seat, I think that’s a lot of money that can be better spent keeping people out of involvement in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Sauschuck replied that the service can be vital in a sparsely-populated state where some police agencies do not have anything more than a patrol component. It can help in instances anywhere from stolen vehicles, potential domestic violence or human trafficking, he said.
“I don’t know how you’d put a dollar amount on sharing that style of information, but it’s incredibly helpful and it’s completely driven by public safety,” he said.
Sauschuck went on to say the information gathered at the center goes through a vetting process before being sent to federal agencies, operating differently from a traditional police dispatch service in which a call may be immediately responded to. Information must be approved by a supervisor before submitted to partnering federal agencies, Sauschuck said.
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, seemed skeptical that such a distinction mattered when the agency encourages people to report suspicious behavior, saying it could be used as an excuse to racially profile individuals.
“With all due respect, being Black in America, [they appear to be] the exact same thing,” she said.