Maine is one of only a few states where law enforcement discipline records are public. But that doesn't always result in transparency. Credit: Illustration by Natalie Williams

A newly released batch of police records from across Maine shows how conduct that leads to the most severe internal punishments for law enforcement officers is often hidden from public view. 

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition this week released more than 120 discipline records from Maine law enforcement agencies, including municipal police departments, county sheriff’s offices and the Maine State Police. 

The records represent a small sample of internal discipline and show how Maine’s law enforcement agencies can sidestep the state’s open access laws by describing the misconduct with vague or undescriptive language, or not at all.

Beginning in January 2021, the nonprofit coalition surveyed 135 Maine law enforcement agencies, asking for both the number of citizen complaints against officers and discipline records that were substantiated by internal investigators since 2016. Roughly half the surveyed agencies provided a total number of complaints and a third showed that disciplinary action had been taken against at least one officer, the group said. 

The responses differed greatly across agencies. However there are no clear policies for how agencies should collect or document such information. Police labor contracts often mandate the destruction of discipline records after a period set during negotiations between unions and management. Some agencies redacted records, including officer names.

“There’s really no standard,” said Judy Meyer, vice president of the coalition and executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. “Each department kind of does its own thing.” 

The documents provide more examples of the kind of opaque records detailed in two previous Bangor Daily News investigations. 

A BDN and Portland Press Herald joint investigation in 2021 found the Maine State Police had disciplined at least 19 officers since 2015, and in 12 of those cases the record contained so few details that it was not possible to know what the officers did wrong. The news organizations also sued to get the Maine State Police to unredact some of those records. The suit is ongoing.

Similarly, in 2020 the BDN published an analysis of more than 500 discipline records from county sheriff’s offices. A third of the records that documented serious discipline did not provide enough detail to determine with any certainty what conduct merited the punishment described, the BDN found at the time. 

The latest records, many of which were part of the BDN’s previous analyses, show vague and opaque descriptions of conduct that merited serious discipline. For example, a Waldo County corrections officer was terminated in January 2021 after an internal investigation. But the record makes no mention of what the investigation found, instead citing policies violated, including “failure to comply with standard procedures” and “failure to perform the duties of an assigned position.” 

Similarly, a Cumberland police officer was suspended two weeks in 2020 after an internal investigation determined he had engaged in “conduct unbecoming an officer” and “neglect of duty.”