The Oxford County Sheriff’s Office in South Paris, Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Bangor Daily News will receive an award from the New England First Amendment Coalition for its reporting on a lack of accountability among Maine county sheriff’s offices, the organization announced Wednesday.

The newspaper will receive the coalition’s annual Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award, which is given to a New England journalist or team of journalists for work that protects or advances the public’s right to know, at an online awards ceremony April 21. Preference is given to reporters who overcome hurdles to access public information.

The Bangor Daily News series Lawmen Off Limits — reported by Erin Rhoda, Callie Ferguson and Josh Keefe — delved into the misconduct of county officers in Maine and has led to at least three bills to institute more oversight.

After analyzing more than 1,300 pages of discipline records obtained from 16 sheriff’s offices across the state, the Maine Focus team found that, the more serious the discipline, the less likely the records were to provide details about the misconduct in question.

read the full series

A third of the records documenting serious discipline didn’t contain enough information to understand what had happened, even when an officer was fired, and different counties provided varying degrees of information about officer misdeeds. The lack of transparency means communities in some parts of the state can know about the misconduct of their officers, and others cannot.

The newspaper successfully pushed back against unwarranted redactions in two counties and showed how a third sheriff’s office failed to keep discipline records at all.

By comparing discipline records with state licensing records, the newspaper also discovered that county officers had kept their certifications despite repeatedly lying to their supervisors, belittling an inmate based on his disabilities and ethnicity, and sexually harassing colleagues and prisoners. In other states where the oversight body has more power, the officers likely would have lost their license.

Finally, the newspaper revealed what can happen when no one has authority to place a sheriff on leave while under investigation.

The work was supported by the Pulitzer Center, based in Washington, D.C.

Previous recipients of the award are the Hartford Courant (2019); Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe (2018); The Sun Journal in Lewiston (2017); Jenifer McKim of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (2016); James W. Foley, posthumously, the war correspondent and New Hampshire native killed by the Islamic State (2015); Brent Curtis of the Rutland Herald in Vermont (2014); and Don Stacom of the Hartford Courant (2013).

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Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the managing editor of the Bangor Daily News. He's an Orland native who moved to Portland in 2002 and now lives in Unity. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the...