Editor’s note: This is part of a series about how county law enforcement officers in Maine escape accountability. Read the other stories here. The series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
An Aroostook County corrections officer blamed four inmates for not wanting to take their medication, but never actually offered it to them, refused to give one of the inmates a grievance form to report the situation, and then lied about all of it. He was suspended for 45 days.
A Cumberland County corrections officer wrestled with a prisoner wearing handcuffs and shackles, put him in a prohibited chokehold, and was later “unable to recall” key details, such as that another corrections officer had to separate him from the inmate. He was fired.
A Penobscot County corrections officer messaged a female inmate hours after she was released to ask her on a date, disclosing information about ongoing criminal cases and telling her not to worry about his job. Then he lied about it. He was suspended for four days.
The Bangor Daily News sought to understand the extent of misconduct and disciplinary action at sheriff’s offices and jails. These examples show it’s possible for counties to thoroughly document misbehavior and outline the reasons for officers’ punishments, allowing the public to track officer wrongdoing.
But amid heightened calls for law enforcement transparency and accountability across Maine and the United States, sheriff’s offices too often provide little to no information about some of their officers’ worst offenses on the job.
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After an outside investigation by the Maine attorney general’s office, a Penobscot County deputy was suspended for five days for his “actions with the named female in the reports,” reads one opaque record that fails to mention any specific allegation or finding.
In an obvious declaration, a Knox County deputy broke the rules around “prohibited conduct,” resulting in a two-day suspension. The record contains no account of what the prohibited conduct was.
Now, the public can see five years of discipline for the worst patrol and corrections officer misconduct at the county level. In these public records, you can see which sheriff’s offices have been open about their misconduct and which have opted to share as little detail as possible.
In total, a third of records for serious discipline, where someone was suspended, terminated, demoted or resigned in lieu of discipline, did not provide enough information to determine what actually happened.
Some counties offered more details than others. Cumberland County, for example, had 23 records of serious discipline. Only one of those records lacked the information needed to understand the event in question, according to a BDN analysis. Lincoln County had five records of serious discipline, and none of them were vague.
In contrast, Knox County provided 13 records of serious discipline, eight of which lacked information. Likewise, half of Penobscot County’s 20 records lacked details. It wasn’t possible to determine what happened in six of Franklin County’s 14 records for serious discipline.
Earlier this year, the BDN began requesting employee discipline records from 2015 to 2020 from the 16 counties, to provide a statewide look at offices run by elected sheriffs. The newspaper obtained nearly 500 records to provide the first known picture of misconduct at sheriff’s offices in Maine, which collectively employed 1,315 law enforcement and corrections officers in 2019.
In examining the collected documents, the BDN found that 272 officers received some kind of discipline over the five-year period in question, or one in five officers employed by Maine sheriff’s offices in 2019. Many were disciplined more than once, resulting in 471 total instances of discipline.
Eighty-four officers received the most serious discipline, meaning they were suspended, demoted, terminated or resigned in lieu of discipline. That’s one in every 16 officers employed last year. Some received multiple serious disciplinary actions, resulting in 97 total records for serious discipline and resignations in lieu of discipline.
The statistics are based on the records reporters were able to obtain. The actual number of records is likely higher.
Somerset County has still not handed over its records, after first being asked for them March 3, and Franklin County destroyed older records of minor discipline, per requirements in its union contracts.
Washington County provided a single discipline record for a non-law enforcement county employee, but county officials said they didn’t have any records for law enforcement officers, even though one corrections officer, Patrick Spencer, was decertified in 2017 for being convicted of stealing drugs.
The database below includes 97 records for the most serious punishments and resignations in lieu of punishment, out of the 471 total records. It represents 84 officers.
The BDN is publishing the database because it’s in the public’s interest to know when officers, who have the authority to use force against residents and are responsible for the wellbeing of prisoners, are engaging in misconduct and breaking the public’s trust.
Second, the BDN is linking to the actual records themselves, so the public can see the nuances of what happened, the reactions of employees when they’re noted in the records, and whether sheriffs are documenting what happened in ways their constituents can understand.
These are records of final disciplinary action, meaning they do not include findings that were later overturned or struck down. These are not unsubstantiated complaints. From the county perspective, they are the final say on the matters in question.
Analyzing all 471 officer discipline records from counties across the state, representing both patrol and the jail operations, is made difficult by a relatively small sample size and a dearth of research on the subject that experts say makes it hard to tell what is “normal” or not.
A few findings show the limits of this analysis:
— The number of records produced by each sheriff’s office varied greatly, even when adjusted for the number of officers employed. Kennebec County had nearly one record for every officer employed in 2019. Androscoggin County had .07 records per staff member. It’s unclear whether more records indicate more misconduct or less. If a county has more records, or more of one type of misconduct, it does not necessarily mean officers there are less likely to do their jobs, experts said. Instead, the county may just be more likely to enforce rules and document transgressions.
— Kennebec County produced the largest file, 130 discipline records, when accounting for the number of officers employed. But it did not produce a single record of serious discipline. It’s hard to say whether those figures are related or not: Did levying more discipline for minor infractions help keep officers from engaging in serious misconduct?
— There were seven records of serious discipline related to sexual harassment. Four of them were issued by Penobscot County. It’s not possible to know from the records if that means Penobscot County is more likely than other counties to punish officers for sexual harassment, or if Penobscot County officers are more likely to engage in sexual harassment.
Despite those limits, here are some takeaways:
— Records of serious punishments were more likely than records of minor discipline to be vague or missing information.
— Fifteen officers were terminated, suspended pending termination or resigned in lieu of termination over the last five years, according to the records. Five of those records did not provide enough information to deduce why.
— County corrections officers were overrepresented in the discipline records. Corrections officers accounted for 57 percent of the county law enforcement workforce in 2019 but 73 percent of the discipline records. Patrol officers accounted for 43 percent of the county law enforcement workforce that year but 27 percent of the discipline records.
— Few officers earned repeated suspensions. Only 10 officers were suspended more than once in the last five years.
We want to learn more about officer discipline and could use your help. Do you know about one of these cases? Would you share more about your interactions with county officers? Does a record appear incorrect in this database? Please let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.