Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories jointly investigated and written by the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald about how the Maine State Police conceals officer wrongdoing. Tomorrow’s story will feature examples of the misconduct that state police left out of its discipline records. The Pulitzer Center helped fund the series.
For the final month of 2019, Maine State Police Sergeant Elisha Fowlie wasn’t allowed to work.
Starting Nov. 29, 2019, Fowlie began serving a 30-day suspension for violating two of the agency’s policies that summer, leaving the state police troop that patrols midcoast Maine short a supervisor as the year drew to a close.
What did Fowlie do to warrant the punishment? It’s a secret.
In discipline records that provide one of the only public windows into officer malfeasance, the state police includes so few details about its troopers’ misbehavior that the public cannot know what the officers did wrong by reading them. The practice defies the intent of the state law that makes discipline records public, according to those who helped craft the statute 30 years ago.
The lack of information in the records illustrates one way Maine’s largest police force exhibits a pattern of secrecy that blocks it from public scrutiny.
In addition to keeping records with minimal information, they are incomplete. Under a union contract, some public records of discipline are destroyed. Troopers have been arrested but lack a public discipline history. And the state agency that oversees Maine law enforcement has revoked the licenses of troopers who resigned from the state police with no public record documenting why, according to a joint investigation by the state’s two largest newspapers, the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald.
The lack of transparency means lawmakers, officers and the public can’t fully assess how the agency holds its officers accountable, making it more challenging for police overseers to make policy changes and maintain the public’s faith in law enforcement, lawmakers and experts said.
State laws address access to discipline records differently, but Maine is one of about 15 states where officer discipline records are public documents. More states are considering similar laws amid a national examination of law enforcement and demands that officers be held publicly accountable for misconduct. New York and California each made discipline records public in the last two years.
read more from the misconduct concealed series
However, the Maine State Police’s practices show how law enforcement agencies can skirt transparency even in a state that makes the records public.
“I wish that they would be coming out and saying, ‘Yes, there are issues that need to be fixed, and we care so much about our profession that we’re going to lead the charge on fixing them because we know that trust is our currency,’” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell. As House chair of the Legislature’s public safety committee, she is largely responsible for oversight of police. “There’s trust to be rebuilt for sure.”
Transparency into misconduct is important so officers and the public can see whether discipline is fairly applied, said Maria Haberfeld, an expert on police training and discipline at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“The public has all the right to see what kind of misconduct is tolerated by the given police organization and why, and whether or not there is an equal distribution of the discipline,” she said.
The newspapers obtained more than five years of state police discipline records. Of the 19 officers punished for misbehavior from 2015 through half of 2020 for whom there are public records, it was not possible to discern with any certainty what 12 of them got in trouble for.
So the newspapers investigated the misconduct that the records kept hidden, discovering how one trooper failed to report when his former fiancee committed a hit and run. Another kept secret that he saw a fellow officer punch a handcuffed man in the face.
Of the 12 officers whose records were vague, the newspapers’ investigation revealed details of misconduct for seven of them. For the remaining five officers — who received among the harshest punishments — it was not possible for the newspapers to confirm what happened. All disciplined officers declined interviews or did not respond to requests for comment.
The disciplined officers represent only a portion of the 65 internal affairs cases where allegations against officers were found to be true over the last six years. Whether the remaining officers had their discipline destroyed, or were not disciplined at all, is not known. There are about 300 sworn officers on the force.
Bare of description, records for Fowlie, the sergeant, say he was suspended for 30 days because of “the July/August 2019 incidents,” during which he violated the “code of conduct and chain of command policy.” He currently works in the state police unit that protects the governor.
It’s not clear what part of the pages-long policies he violated, let alone what he did. That’s partly because the state police also blacked out part of the public record that appears to detail Fowlie’s misconduct.
In addition to having vague references to misconduct, the state police redacted what appear to be more descriptive accounts of misbehavior in several cases.
The agency declined requests to lift the redactions, saying the information is confidential and exempt from the state’s open records law. Its staff attorney, Christopher Parr, also declined to cite the statutory reason for each redaction, saying to do so would reveal confidential information.
The newspapers jointly sued the state police to lift the redactions under the Maine Freedom of Access Act. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Col. John Cote, the chief of the state police, said his agency is following requirements set out by Maine law.
“We ensure the records honor the law and protect privacy as established under personnel law,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions. “I believe it is important for the public to have an awareness of the agency’s complaint and discipline process for officers and have information about the corrective actions of the agency if warranted.”
Putting aside legal questions about the redactions, whether public agencies should generally include more information about misconduct in discipline records is a policy question for lawmakers, Parr said.
“Based on the language of the statute, such a record seemingly only must identify the employee who is subject to disciplinary action and, presumably, must state what the discipline imposed is,” Parr said.
‘That almost makes no sense’
Thirty years ago, Maine lawmakers debated how much the public deserved to know about state employees accused of wrongdoing. Sen. Beverly Bustin, D-Augusta, sponsored a bill to ensure complaints and internal investigations of misconduct would stay confidential. It was backed mainly by unions who sought to prevent the publication of unfounded accusations.
But a key provision of the proposal allowed the public to know about confirmed misconduct. If an agency disciplined an employee, the records of that discipline would be public. Lawmakers never weighed in on how detailed the records should be, but no one appears to have intended for the law to hide substantiated malfeasance.
“I don’t think any one of us ever envisioned that something that was ultimately deemed public after the fact would be incomplete to the extent that you couldn’t figure out what the person had done,” Richard Trahey, a former lobbyist for the then-Maine State Employees Association who helped craft the law 30 years ago, said in an interview. “That almost makes no sense.”
The Legislature’s judiciary committee passed the bill believing it struck a balance between privacy and transparency. Today, the state police routinely defy the spirit of that compromise.
For example, the state police punished Cpl. Scott Quintero after a July 4, 2020, “incident” where he “communicated with a female subject while on duty in an inappropriate manner,” according to a discipline agreement reached between the state police and the Maine State Troopers Association.
Quintero’s punishment was relatively severe: a demotion from sergeant to corporal, in addition to no longer being able to teach leadership at the training academy or apply for a promotion for five years. If he committed “similar or other significant misconduct” again, he would be fired.
But there is no description of whom Quintero “communicated” with, such as whether it was a state police employee, a defendant in a case or another civilian. There is no record of how his communication was inappropriate, no description of why his actions were considered major misconduct and no mention of what “communication” means, such as whether it was electronic or verbal.
In another instance, the state police demoted Christopher Rogers to corporal, transferred him to a different unit and prohibited him from applying for a promotion for three years because he “engaged in conduct unbecoming” of a state police sergeant while on duty in June or July of 2016, according to his discipline record. It’s unclear why the state police did not pinpoint which month. There is no description of what Rogers did or the effect of his actions.
Similarly, the state police suspended Cpl. Kyle Pelletier for 20 days and required him to pay back the state $108 “on account of the July 2019 incident.”
Pelletier’s record appears to contain a description of his misconduct, but that sentence is redacted, followed by another that states: “This is a violation of our Code of Conduct policy (E-24) and Vehicle Use policy (E-80).”
In other parts of the country, some police chiefs actively publicize major discipline.
Luther T. Reynolds, the chief of police in Charleston, South Carolina, said he has held press conferences after firing an officer. The audience is twofold, he said. Answering questions about misconduct helps build trust among the public. It also demonstrates to other officers the consequences for misbehavior.
The state police’s argument that descriptions are optional “is a discretionary interpretation used to conceal police misconduct from the public,” said Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, who sits on the judiciary committee and has been a frequent critic of law enforcement policies. “They could do a lot better job at transparency if they wanted to.”
‘Under the hood of government’
The state police is not an outlier in failing to include details about officer misconduct in its discipline records. When the BDN previously examined hundreds of discipline records kept by the state’s 16 county sheriff’s offices, the newspaper found that many left out specific descriptions of what police and corrections officers did wrong, especially when the punishments were more severe.
Still, the county records ranged in their specificity, illustrating how law enforcement agencies interpret their responsibility to document discipline differently and that they can be more forthcoming about their mistakes when they choose to.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, suspended a corrections officer in 2017 for 20 days — the same length of time as Pelletier — for showing favoritism, making sexual comments toward a female inmate and then lying about it to supervisors when she complained.
The sheriff documented the incident in a seven-page record that detailed the findings of an internal investigation. It also noted the specific sections of policy that the corrections officer violated, and a bulleted list of the officer’s objections and defense of his behavior.
It is important to show “that due process was provided, and there exists just cause for the discipline meted out,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said when he provided the records last year.
While it’s not uncommon for Maine police agencies to have vague discipline records, it appears to be unusual for them to black out entire portions of them. The BDN examined more than 1,000 pages of discipline records from county sheriff’s offices. Two counties redacted some portions of the records but agreed to unredact them when asked. The Portland Police Department provided five years of records to the Press Herald, with no redactions.
There should be consistency in public access across the state, one lawmaker said.
“I think if you’re finding different sets of rules and procedures in the different counties in Maine, or in the hundreds of different municipalities we have, that means that people in certain communities are getting less information than in other communities,” said Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who is a former assistant attorney general. “Openness and transparency protects the good actors. We should not sacrifice the character of the good actors by hiding the conduct of the bad ones.”
Lawmakers such as Harnett, Warren, Evangelos and Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, all said they want to consider requiring law enforcement agencies to add descriptions of misconduct to the public records. Some also talked about the possibility of requiring the state police to submit an annual report to the Legislature with statistics on officer misconduct and the agency’s response.
“The whole point of freedom of access laws is to allow us to see under the hood of government,” said Keim, who sits on the Legislature’s judiciary committee. “They are completely sidestepping that if they’re keeping records that are so inadequate.”
Cote, who leads the state police, said he was unable to comment on legislation that has not been drafted.
“We support transparency in all aspects of our work and remain committed to abiding by and enforcing State of Maine laws,” Cote wrote, adding that the state police annually reports broad agency information, such as statistics on allegations of excessive force, to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the licensing body for law enforcement.
It does not report annual discipline matters, however.
Officer misconduct is not the only type of information concealed by the state police but not by other agencies. For example, the state police has declined to disclose policies and practices related to the use of digital surveillance tools, such as facial recognition technology, something other police agencies have revealed. And, while the state police has relied on a specific law to keep such information secret, some lawmakers want to eliminate that law to force more public disclosure.
‘He’s the boss’
Then there are the cases of trooper misconduct with no corresponding public discipline records.
In the last five years, at least three troopers allegedly broke the law, but the state police had no internal public records documenting the circumstances.
One example is Trooper Justin “Jay” Cooley, who resigned from the state police in January 2020, five months after being charged with domestic violence assault.
Another is Michael Lane. Saco police arrested the trooper for criminal mischief in 2016, but York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery decided not to prosecute after finding insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. What happened remains unclear. The prosecutor declined to comment on the facts of the case. But Lane received a letter of guidance from the criminal justice academy that provides general clues: The academy reminded him to comply with the law at all times, maintain his composure in “difficult and frustrating situations” and recognize how the use of alcohol could cloud his judgment.
Lane remains with Alfred-based Troop A and was promoted to corporal last month.
The third involved Trooper Ethan Doody, who resigned in March 2015 shortly before the criminal justice academy found he had committed theft by deception and revoked his law enforcement license.
The investigation into Doody stemmed from the night of Dec. 26, 2014, when he responded to a pickup truck that crashed into a bull moose in Aroostook County’s Cyr Plantation. The driver, Brian Dufour, and his passenger were not injured, but the moose was killed, and the truck was too damaged to drive.
When the driver’s father, Joel Dufour of Madawaska, arrived on scene to help, he noticed the moose’s antlers had been cut off, he said. His son told him the trooper, Doody, had done it, even though he’d asked to keep the moose. Joel Dufour found it odd and didn’t get a clear answer from Doody as to why he took the antlers from the family, he said.
“I was not in a position to argue. He’s the boss,” Joel Dufour said.
More than two months later, the academy found the trooper had committed theft by deception when he used a hack saw to claim the antlers for himself and falsely said they had to be removed “to prevent people from just taking the antlers and discarding the carcass,” according to the academy’s paperwork documenting Doody’s license revocation.
The Maine attorney general’s office also looked into Doody’s conduct, according to the academy, but he didn’t face criminal charges.
Staff attorney Parr said there were no discipline records for Doody.
But the agency did reach an agreement with Doody to resign. The document shows Doody was investigated and quit. In return, the state police agreed to only verify his employment to his future employers. Other parts of the agreement were redacted without explanation. There was no mention of the moose antlers.
The only way to know why Doody resigned would be to ask a different agency than the one that employed him.
This is how the process works, Cote said: If the state police can’t complete an internal investigation, it is closed. The agency has no control over an officer’s decision to resign, Cote said.
Police in other states complete internal investigations even after officers resign, however.
And while the criminal justice academy, which handles police licensing in Maine, may pick up a complaint regardless of the officer’s employment status, it only reviews a limited number of cases, nearly all of which involve allegations of criminal behavior. The state police also does not assist the academy by handing over internal investigative reports into its officers. Rather, under its union contract, the state police only sends a synopsis. The union contract is approved by a number of officers and officials, including the governor.
When law enforcement agencies don’t document or disclose misconduct, it makes it easier for officers to get policing jobs elsewhere, including in other states.
“This is one of the biggest problems in American policing because it’s so seriously decentralized. I’ve seen it over and over and over the years: that officers were allowed to resign agencies, and then they joined another agency, and there was no record really of any type of misconduct in the previous agency,” said Haberfeld, with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
There are other ways troopers can avoid public documentation of their discipline. Under their union agreement, troopers can request that the state police remove corrective memorandums, reprimands and suspensions from their personnel files after varying periods of time. Unlike other law enforcement agencies in Maine with similar contracts, they are then destroyed.
Cote pointed out that removal is not allowed if the officer has received subsequent, similar discipline.
Wiping clean an officer’s disciplinary history hinders the ability of supervisors to discipline officers in the future, said experts who study police accountability. The practice can also threaten the constitutional rights of defendants who are entitled to know if the officer testifying against them has a history of dishonesty, violence or criminal behavior.
“It’s about fairness, about giving us the information we need to present to the jury that this witness may or may not be credible, may or may not have his own biases or histories that would make him less than heroic in the eyes of the jury,” said Tina Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Craig Poulin, executive director of the Maine State Troopers Association and a former chief of the state police, did not respond to three interview requests.
The state police does not track how many discipline records it destroys, Parr said.
But it’s clear that cases resulting in discipline with a corresponding public record make up a small percentage of total complaints.
Most reports to the state police’s internal affairs division — 477 out of 685 over the last six years — are deemed informational only, according to statistics provided by the agency. Of the 208 internal affairs cases that resulted in findings for or against officers in 2015 through 2020, 65 were sustained, meaning the allegations against officers were found to be true.
It’s not known how many of the 65 cases resulted in discipline, but the newspapers received 20 records of discipline for 19 officers through the first half of 2020.
‘Where the problem starts and ends’
Political leaders who oversee police departments are ultimately responsible for ensuring agencies release more information about misconduct, said Haberfeld, with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“There’s too much focus on what police organizations can or cannot do,” she said, “and not enough focus on the fact that it’s the politicians that can tell or not tell them to do certain things.”
The overseers of the state police include lawmakers and the governor — a former attorney general who has worked closely with law enforcement throughout her career.
Gov. Janet Mills’ office didn’t respond directly to questions about whether the governor believes a lack of detail in misconduct records is a problem and, if so, what she wants to do about it. Mills believes the records “must strike the appropriate balance between providing transparency into matters of police misconduct while adhering to state laws involving personnel matters — and that these must be the only considerations when creating these records,” spokesperson Lindsay Crete said.
In addition to guarding transparency, politicians are also responsible for picking the leader of the state police, who, per state law, must be chosen from within the ranks of the organization.
Lawmakers and experts were split on the requirement that the colonel come from within the state police. Some said they believe it could be a good motivator for the rank and file, and picking from within the organization ensures the leader knows the operations thoroughly. Others questioned why it was a requirement and said only being allowed to pick from within the state police could create a culture that rejects outside oversight.
Haberfeld said the practice is not common, but she’s not opposed to it. “The question becomes: Who is picking the person? If it’s a local politician, this is where the problem starts and ends,” she said.
Within the last two decades, no one has been sworn in as leader of the state police with less than 20 years of experience in the agency. Over that period, the Legislature’s criminal justice committee didn’t turn down any of the five colonels’ nominations. They were confirmed with zero opposition in the Maine Senate.