No one objected to a bill Friday that would expand the authority of Maine’s law enforcement certification board to punish officers for misconduct that raises concern about their character but does not rise to the level of criminal activity.
Currently, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which certifies all Maine law enforcement and corrections officers, can only discipline officers for misconduct that, with few exceptions, constitutes a crime. As a result, the academy is powerless to take action against police and corrections officers whose behavior is harmful but isn’t criminal, such as violations of the Maine Human Rights Act or acts of moral depravity.
Other states, such as Florida and Missouri, empower police licensing boards to take actions against a range of non-criminal offenses.
Last year, a Bangor Daily News series highlighted examples of officers who have avoided losing their badges despite having sexually harassed their colleagues, discriminated against inmates based on their ethnicity and disability, and lied to avoid getting in trouble. One officer lost his policing job twice over repeated allegations of domestic abuse but kept his badge each time.
In response to the series, Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, proposed a bill that would broaden the academy’s statutory power, saying the examples he read about “screamed out” for attention by lawmakers.
“Nothing undermines the public trust that we must have in our law enforcement officers more than a bad cop,” McCrea told the Legislature’s public safety committee during a Friday hearing on the bill, LD 505.
The academy’s director, Rick Desjardins, signaled his support for the idea during the hearing, saying the proposal was in keeping with the direction he wanted to steer the academy since he became its leader in July.
“This is an important piece of what needs to happen in this state,” Desjardins said.
A representative from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association also testified in favor of the bill.
The bill does not specify which new categories of misconduct should be added to the academy’s purview, instead leaving that determination to be worked out by academy officials and lawmakers before going to a vote by the full Legislature.
Asked by one committee member for some examples, Desjardins said he would like the academy to have the ability to punish officers for sexual harassment or conduct that calls into question an officer’s trustworthiness, such as lying.
“I don’t think the academy’s board wants to get into the business of moderating all behavior of agency discipline, but clearly we have seen some pretty egregious examples of officers who haven’t broken the law, and I use air quotes, but have clearly shocked the conscience,” Desjardins said. “It’s mind boggling that they’re still in the profession.”
Roland LaCroix, chief of the University of Maine Police Department and the president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he knows of at least one situation in Maine where an agency hired a police officer whose credibility as a witness in court had been called into question at his previous policing job. But because the officer had never been disciplined by his previous employer, the new agency wasn’t aware of the issue until the officer had already been at his new job for several months.
Also on Friday, lawmakers showed support for a bill that would increase the number of people on the academy subcommittee that investigates complaints against officers from three to five people, with at least two of those members required to be civilians with no background in law enforcement.
Right now, the academy’s three-person Complaint Review Committee is struggling to keep up with the 60 or so cases it handles a year, Desjardins said.
Read the Lawmen Off Limits stories here. The series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.