A former South Portland police officer is suing the city to block it from turning over her discipline records in a lawsuit that could have wider transparency implications for the department. Credit: Callie Ferguson / BDN

A former South Portland cop is suing to block the city from releasing information about her misconduct in a case that could have broader implications for the department.

Kaitlyn Thurlow sued South Portland in May after learning officials intended to release her discipline records to another member of the department and a local lawyer, both of whom asked for them under a Maine law that makes police discipline public. Thurlow has since become a police officer in Gorham.

But in a twist, last week a Maine group that advocates for transparency separately published the documents as part of a larger database of police disciplinary records. It effectively brought to light what she fought to keep secret: that she repeatedly crashed her cruiser and sent inappropriate text messages to other Maine police dog handlers.

Even so, her lawsuit will force South Portland to resolve whether it is required to purge written reprimands after a certain period, and could also prevent the city from releasing such records for other unionized members of the department.

Kaitlyn Thurlow and her police dog, Creed Credit: Courtesy of South Portland Police Department

The case highlights a practice that has drawn scrutiny from police transparency advocates and is another example of Maine’s spotty handling of police discipline records, which was revealed in recent Bangor Daily News investigations.

“Destruction of police disciplinary records strikes me as hugely problematic given the immense powers of police officers, the trust we give them to use those powers wisely and be honest, and the constitutional obligations of prosecutors to disclose disciplinary problems in discovery in criminal cases,” said Marcus Wraight, the lawyer who asked for South Portland’s discipline records.

At issue is whether the city must literally destroy written reprimands after a year under the officers’ union contract, as Thurlow argues, or if it is allowed to maintain copies subject to public review.

The state archivist, which sets schedules for how long public agencies must maintain copies of public records, should end its policy allowing police unions and municipalities to negotiate to their own timelines for destroying discipline, Wraight said.

Jonathan Goodman, who represents Thurlow and the unions comprising South Portland’s patrol and command officers, said the intent of the union contract is to strike a balance between government transparency and the privacy of officers regarding minor punishments.

“We’re just trying to get the city to operate within what we believe is the correct legal framework,” Goodman said.

Thurlow’s records show that on Feb. 8, 2020, South Portland police officials reprimanded her for crashing her police cruiser for the third time in six years, according to copies the BDN obtained from the Maine First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for free speech and government transparency.

A second record shows that on May 14, 2020, former police Chief Timothy Sheehan again reprimanded Thurlow for her “characterization of events in a text thread” with police dog handlers from other agencies and a police dog training group overseen by the Maine State Police.

Thurlow’s conduct was “unbecoming” of a South Portland police officer, cast the department and its police dog unit in a negative light, and would have drawn a harsher punishment had she not taken “extreme ownership of the behavior,” the records said. South Portland city officials declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.  

Thurlow and her police dog, Creed, drew local news coverage in mid-2018 for becoming South Portland’s first female K-9 team, after completing 14 weeks of training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

She gave up her job as a dog handler on May 27, 2020, a week after her reprimand, according to a letter she submitted to department leadership. Working with a police dog was a “dream come true” but changes in her personal life meant she no longer had the time to dedicate to the position, she wrote.

In April, three months after the coalition sought and received Thurlow’s records, Wraight submitted a similar request to South Portland, specifically asking for 10 years of disciplinary information about its officers.

A few weeks later, in late April, Corey Hamilton, South Portland’s Animal Control Officer, made a narrower request for only Thurlow’s records, as well as the department’s list of officers who have been flagged for credibility issues. Hamilton declined to comment.

After Thurlow learned of Hamilton’s request, she and her union attorney sued to block the city until a Cumberland County Superior Court judge could decide whether releasing the records would violate the South Portland Police Patrol Association’s collective bargaining agreement.

The agreement says police officials will remove written reprimands from an officer’s personnel file after a year. The disagreement between the union and the city hinges on the interpretation of the word “remove.”

Thurlow, who resigned from South Portland shortly after filing the suit and began working for Gorham in late June, argues that removing a file means the city should have destroyed her reprimands after a year. (In Thurlow’s case, the reprimand regarding text messages to other dog handlers stipulates that it should be removed even sooner, after only six months.) The city should also destroy written reprimands older than a year for the rest of South Portland officers protected by the union, its lawyers argue.

But South Portland says that records no longer influence future discipline or promotions after they are removed from an officer’s personnel file. A copy remains part of the department’s original internal affairs investigation, the city says, and it is still subject to disclosure.

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.