Protests and anger followed the deadly police shooting of Katherine Hegarty in her home in Jackman in 1992.
One gathering of concerned residents took place at the former Momma Baldacci’s restaurant in Skowhegan. Frustrated by a lack of meaningful responses from the Somerset County sheriff and the Maine State Police, the group challenged then-Maine Attorney General Mike Carpenter to come. He said he would, to the surprise of his chief of investigations.
“I’m like, ‘Really?’” recalled Brian MacMaster, who has held the position since 1984. “He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going.’ I said, ‘OK, you’re the boss.’”
The group proceeded to yell at MacMaster and Carpenter, fueled by outrage over officers who had, after less than 10 minutes outside Hegarty’s home, broken down her door and shot her dead when she raised her rifle. She had shot at campers whom she believed were trespassing on her property earlier in the day and had a history of mental illness.
“I don’t know if I was ever more attacked in a meeting than that night,” Carpenter said. “We weren’t there to defend what had happened. We didn’t know anything [as the shooting was still under investigation]. We just sat there and took the whole thing.”
One person stood out: Linda Smithers of Starks. She didn’t scream at them, MacMaster recalled. She made forceful arguments for changes to law enforcement oversight.
Smithers hadn’t known Hegarty. She had no background in law enforcement. But she believed Hegarty shouldn’t have died. She believed officers needed more training for how to handle situations involving people with mental illnesses. And she thought they should be held accountable when they made mistakes.
Smithers, who went on to drive some of the most sweeping changes to how Maine trains and oversees law enforcement officers over the last 30 years, died Wednesday at age 73 after an illness.
When other protesters went back to their lives, Smithers — who was a nurse, management consultant, and inspector of organic farms over the course of her career — kept pushing for changes in the face of significant opposition from law enforcement.
She worked with lawmakers to help write what became a landmark bill, passed in 1994, that strengthened police oversight by combining county, municipal and state law enforcement training into one program, so all Maine officers received the same basic training. The bill also mandated continued training for officers, and required agencies to adopt procedures — that met minimum standards — for dealing with domestic violence, people who have barricaded themselves, and other risky situations.
The same year, she became the first citizen member of the board of trustees of the state’s law enforcement oversight body, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, a position she pushed to create and then held for 20 years.
MacMaster, who also served on the board for 20 years, with 15 as chairman, appointed her to lead the academy’s complaint review committee, which looks into whether officers reported for misconduct should keep their certifications. The room where the group meets at the academy in Vassalboro is named for her.
“She was the catalyst. She was the one that opened our eyes and sort of forced us into considering diverse views or views we weren’t necessarily willing to look at,” MacMaster said. “In the end she probably became the most admired member of the board of trustees.”
On the board, she worked to make officers’ training less militaristic and more like the conditions they would experience in the community, helped create updated standards for tactical teams dealing with hostage situations, and in general urged the board to be more proactive, MacMaster said.
At first she experienced so much backlash from police that she became afraid enough to get a bulletproof vest, she told the Bangor Daily News in October. Years later, officers saw things differently. In 2012, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association awarded Smithers its Outstanding Contribution to Law Enforcement Award for her devotion to raising law enforcement and corrections standards in Maine.
Some of the very men who belonged to the law enforcement establishment that she confronted came to consider her their dear friend, and vice versa.
“We became great friends. She was a terrific lady who had a deep and abiding passion for doing the right thing,” Carpenter said.
John Rogers, who served as director of the academy from 2003 to 2020, said his first impression of Smithers was that she seemed aggressive, intent on critiquing an institution to which he devoted his career. But over years of working with her, he realized her persistence “was her brilliance,” he said.
“That whole ‘thin blue line’ of cops protecting cops? That was in full force in the ’90s. Linda saw [civilian oversight] as a way of breaking that barrier and saying, ‘Hey, we need to have a true oversight review committee that is not cops protecting other cops,’” Rogers said.
“I would say, single handedly, as a citizen of the state of Maine, she probably made the greatest contribution to the positive changes in law enforcement that I’ve ever seen,” he went on.
Thirty years ago, criticizing Maine’s tight-knit law enforcement community was bold for someone with no ties to law enforcement, and especially for a woman.
Police were skeptical that changes were necessary, and enlisting their buy-in was even harder because “it was a really male-dominated environment,” said Rick Desjardins, the academy’s current director and a former Brunswick police officer.
In addition to overcoming gender barriers, her determination showed “how a person with a vision can create change,” Desjardins said.
Elizabeth Ward Saxl now serves as a citizen member on the academy’s board of trustees, filling a role that Smithers helped create and previously held.
As the director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Ward Saxl recently asked her staff to write up descriptions of the different boards they sit on and why they serve on them. When she sat down to complete the task herself on Thursday, she jotted down that she served on the academy’s board because she wanted to live up to Smithers’ legacy.
She “took it upon herself to fight for major reforms to law enforcement before most other people were thinking about those issues,” Ward Saxl said. “Her work resulted in lasting, enduring change.”
A short while later, she learned Smithers had died.
In October and November, the BDN interviewed Smithers for a series on the holes in oversight of county law enforcement officers. She was proud of “the great strides” Maine has taken, she said, but recent examples of police escaping accountability show Maine can still improve.
For instance, the academy does not have the authority to decertify officers who have sexually harassed their colleagues or employees. She said she believed that should change.
Other states have also given their oversight bodies the authority to decertify officers for cruelty or depravity. Currently, human rights violations and ethical transgressions that damage the public’s faith in police — but are not crimes — do not rise to the academy’s purview.
She acknowledged the challenges that would come with tackling the issue but said she believed Maine should be open to finding a way.
“If you can figure out a solution, I’ll die a happy woman,” she said.