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An extensive series by the Bangor Daily News’ Maine Focus team has uncovered many problems with the system of oversight and accountability of the state’s 16 county sheriff departments.
Perhaps most troubling is the practice — which is legal in Maine — of shielding disciplinary records from future employers, which allows officers with records of suspensions, demotions and even firings to be hired by other departments.
This puts the public, especially those who are employed by or held by a sheriff’s department, at risk.
This must be changed.
Maine Focus reported on a corrections officer in Franklin County (in Maine, sheriffs oversee the county jails) who was written up five times in five months for various violations. Casey Boulay was then placed on paid administrative while the Franklin County commissioners considered firing him for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
The commissioners didn’t fire him, which would have been a public decision listed in their meeting minutes. Instead, the county agreed to a private settlement agreement under which Boulay would resign and the county would give him a “neutral” reference if prospective employers called in the future.
Both the county and Boulay agreed to keep the details surrounding his resignation confidential and to not make any negative remarks about the other in the future, according to the settlement agreement. Boulay promised not to sue the county, and was allowed to collect all his accrued sick leave and vacation time and continue his health insurance for a couple weeks.
In addition, the county agreed not to tell the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the agency in charge of certifying and decertifying corrections and police officers, about his misconduct. Therefore, the academy could not make a determination on whether Boulay should lose his license as a corrections officer.
Other states, including Colorado, have enacted laws to prevent this sort of secrecy.
In Colorado, the state legislature passed a law in 2016 requiring officers seeking new employment to allow their former employer to disclose all their conduct-related files — internal investigations, performance reviews, grievances, disciplinary actions and complaints — to potential future employers.
Colorado law enforcement candidates are required to sign an agreement allowing their past employer to release their records. If they don’t sign, they can’t be considered for the job, the law states.
Connecticut also requires law enforcement agencies to disclose past behavior to prospective employees; it also forbids agencies from hiring police officers who were previously dismissed or resigned while under investigation for “malfeasance or other serious misconduct.”
“As a sheriff I don’t want to hire bad deputies. I don’t want somebody out there on patrol who got fired for lying or wrongdoing from another agency,” John Cooke, a former sheriff and Republican state senator in Colorado, told the BDN. He pushed for more openness in law enforcement employment records in Colorado.
“You have to look at the greater good and not just pass off your problems,” Cooke said.
The Maine Focus series also highlighted the difficulty of removing sheriffs from office. Because they are elected, the only way sheriffs can be removed from office before their next election, even if they have long disciplinary records, is if the governor removes them. A bill to allow for a recall of sheriffs, and other elected officials in Maine, died in the Legislature in 2017. Republican state Sen. Lisa Keim proposed legislation last session to develop more oversight of sheriffs, which the sheriffs’ association opposed. It also died in the Legislature.
In one egregious case, then-Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant kept his job for years despite a record of sexual harassment. When investigations, including a criminal review, were launched of his actions, Gallant was able to destroy evidence, including inappropriate photographs.
Gallant resigned in December 2017, after 11 years as sheriff, but there was not a full public reckoning of what happened. And he was able to keep his law enforcement certification until it expired in 2019 because the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the sole state entity that credentials law enforcement officials, mainly punishes them for criminal offenses. Sexual harassment and even assult often do not reach that threshhold, nor do many behaviors that other states consider reasonable grounds for revoking certification.
The Maine Sheriffs’ Association has been working to draft legislation for the last year to address concerns raised in the BDN series, particularly around the problem of employees moving from office to office while their disciplinary records are shielded. The association also aims to propose changes to the process for removing a sheriff. It plans to meet Friday to continue work on these changes.
The push for changes is complicated by the fact that sheriff’s office employees are represented by unions that negotiate such protections into contracts. That’s why it is crucial for lawmakers to change laws that protect sheriff’s office employees from losing their jobs and certification for actions that would result in firing and license revocations in other professions and states.