The Maine State House is seen beyond the leafless trees in the waning weeks of autumn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine lawmakers want judges to be able to place sheriffs alleged of wrongdoing on administrative leave, expand the authority of Maine’s police overseer to allow it to punish officers for a wider range of misconduct, and require Maine police agencies to complete thorough background checks on officers they want to hire.

These are some of the forthcoming bills related to law enforcement accountability expected to be debated and voted on by the Maine Legislature this session, the first since nationwide protests against police wrongdoing this summer.

The proposals come after a recent Bangor Daily News series, Lawmen Off Limits, that investigated the failures of Maine’s system of oversight for law enforcement officers, particularly those working for counties.

For Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, this will be the second time she has sponsored legislation to create a path for elected sheriffs to be placed on leave while they are investigated for alleged misconduct.

In this 2019 file photo, Maine Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, listens at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Though it’s common practice to place municipal police chiefs and rank-and-file officers on leave while they are investigated for violating rules or breaking the law, sheriffs are elected by voters and, under the Maine Constitution, only the governor can remove them from office. No one can place them on leave. In one case, that meant former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant remained the county’s top law enforcement officer in 2017 while under investigation internally and by the FBI, allowing him to allegedly destroy evidence of his misdeeds.

Specific language has not yet been drafted, but Keim said her bill would allow county commissioners to bring complaints about sheriffs to a judge, who, after reviewing the evidence, could decide to place a sheriff on administrative leave. A judge could also direct the Maine attorney general’s office to investigate the misconduct and, based on the findings, prepare a complaint on behalf of county commissioners to submit to the governor’s office. The decision about whether to remove a sheriff would still be up to the governor.

The idea already has support from the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, Keim said. That marks a reversal in the association’s position since 2019, when sheriffs showed up in uniform at a legislative hearing to oppose a similar proposal to give the governor authority to place a sheriff on leave. That bill died.

“The new version is likely better, as it insulates the process from political concerns by involving the judicial branch and creating an additional layer of investigation for suspension purposes,” Keim said.

Publicity has also created momentum.

“The final point to this whole thing ends up being that the press can be powerful and good,” she said.

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, is proposing legislation similar to Keim’s to both clarify the qualifications and oversight of sheriffs. Pickett, who served in law enforcement for 40 years, including as police chief of Dixfield in Oxford County, said he is willing to work with Keim to combine their proposals if necessary.

His aim is to “get all the parties involved to realize what’s going on and take ownership, so we can move together,” he said.

Other proposals aim to give Maine’s overseer of police more authority. Under Maine law, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy can only take away an officer’s certification for conduct considered a crime, with a handful of exceptions. Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, would like to change that.

“I don’t want in any way for people to think I’m out to get cops. I’m not. I’m out to get bad cops,” McCrea said. Several of his family members have devoted their careers to law enforcement, and he opposes calls to reduce funding for police.

Rep. David McCrea. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But after reading about instances of wrongdoing by officers that fell outside the academy’s purview — such as violations of the Maine Human Rights Act — he saw areas where Maine could strengthen its oversight.

“A pretty large part of my inspiration on this was the series your newspaper ran over the last few months regarding officers that were not behaving properly. I don’t know of anyone that was not incensed by that behavior,” McCrea said.

McCrea said the bill is still a concept but will likely include language that would enable the academy to penalize officers for misconduct such as harassment, discrimination, lying during an internal investigation and filing a false report, among other serious non-criminal offenses.

“There is nothing that undermines public trust in policing more than a bad cop,” he said

He recently met over Zoom with the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, the director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the academy’s board chairman, he said, to discuss his ideas and incorporate their feedback.

Another bill aims to make sure law enforcement agencies know about the past misconduct of prospective hires.

Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, is proposing requiring law enforcement to conduct more thorough background checks before hiring officers. The bill would make prospective employers criminally liable if they failed to properly investigate a candidate’s background, although the language describing how that would work is still being written, Miramant said.

While Maine law enforcement agencies typically review officers’ histories before giving them jobs, they can be stymied by confidentiality agreements with previous employers. Miramant’s bill would end those confidentiality agreements and shield previous employers from legal liability for releasing information about past employees.

Similarly, Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, is sponsoring a bill to prevent employers from requiring employees to sign confidentiality agreements when negotiating monetary settlements or as a condition of employment. The secret settlements have been used in the past to prevent people who have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination — sometimes at the hands of police — from speaking publicly.

Harnett introduced a similar bill in 2019 that died when the Legislature adjourned in March due to the pandemic.

Miramant also submitted legislation that would require the academy to submit its training syllabus to the public before final approval. The details of how that would work are still being fleshed out, but Miramant said the programming used to train officers should be subjected to public scrutiny.

That same bill would also add non-law enforcement members to the academy’s board of trustees.

Another proposal by Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, a former member of the academy board of trustees, would enlarge the academy subcommittee that investigates officer misconduct from three to five members. It would also require that two of those members come from a non-law enforcement background.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.