We depend on police to keep us safe, and we give law enforcement officers unique powers so that they can do their jobs.

We also rely on police departments to make sure officers don’t abuse those powers. And, so that there can be meaningful oversight, we expect the departments to be open about how they respond to complaints of misconduct.

The failure of the Maine State Police release its disciplinary records is the subject of a lawsuit filed this week by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. It charges that the department is not complying with either the letter or the spirit of the state Freedom of Access law, which requires disclosure of final disciplinary decisions.

The lawsuit follows a months-long struggle with the department over a reporter’s request to review records under the state’s law designed to promote transparency in government.

From the records the state police eventually turned over, we know that 22 members of the Maine State Police have been disciplined for misconduct over a four-year period ending in 2019.

We know the officers’ names and ranks, but, more often than not, we don’t know what they did to deserve a sanction.

That’s either because the information was blacked out of the public record without explanation, or described in such general terms that it was meaningless.

In one case a state police sergeant was suspended for 30 days for violating “our Code of Conduct policy … and Chain of Command policy.”

But any description of what he did to warrant such a strict sanction is missing from the documents.

In another case, a state trooper has been found to have violated “professional standards” for not investigating a domestic-violence complaint, but it’s unclear from the record what discipline he received or the circumstances of the complaint he didn’t pursue. From this partial record, we don’t know whether it was a minor oversight or a serious breach of duty.

How is the public expected to have confidence in a department that hides relevant information? It’s not enough to ask people to trust the higher-ups to do the right thing. In a democracy, there’s no such thing as accountability in secret.

“The public has the basic right to keep a watchful eye on how law enforcement disciplines its own – especially those public employees who have the power to arrest us,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Press Herald. He added that because there are few  penalties for violating the public access laws, the State Police and other agencies feel free to ignore them.

The Bangor Daily News also made a similar records request to the state police last spring, and it filed a lawsuit against the department last month. The Press Herald’s complaint indicated that the two cases could be joined before they go before a judge.

These suits are not an attempt to embarrass police officers or make their hard jobs any harder. But the public needs to know how these complaints are handled, and if police departments want the public’s support, they should always follow the law.


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