At the end of 2020, both Bangor Daily News reporter Callie Ferguson and Portland Press Herald reporter Matt Byrne checked their email and discovered the Maine State Police had sent them trooper discipline records. Ferguson had requested the documents six months earlier, in late May, and Byrne had waited even longer, having requested them in February 2020.

The two work for competing newspapers, and both had hoped the records could serve as the basis for a story about how Maine’s largest police force handles discipline. But the records were written in such a vague way that it wasn’t possible to understand the underlying misconduct in most cases.

What misbehavior were the state police concealing? Why isn’t the agency more forthcoming, and what are the consequences of the lack of transparency?

It’s not typical for competing newspapers to team up. In this case, however, Ferguson knew that Byrne had asked for similar records. After a conversation over Zoom, reporters and editors for both newspapers agreed that readers would ultimately get more information if the papers worked together to bring to light the misconduct missing from the records.

The novelty of the partnership would hopefully make a statement, too: that it was worth setting aside rivalry to better confront how police keep matters of public interest a secret.

The newspapers also joined forces in court. While Maine law makes most employee records confidential, records of final discipline are public.

In January, after the Maine State Police declined to release unredacted discipline records and declined to provide a legal justification for keeping the redactions, the Bangor Daily News appealed in court. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram filed a similar lawsuit a month later. The newspapers have since combined their lawsuits, arguing the state police unlawfully redacted information intended for public viewing.

While appealing denials of public information in court is expensive, two outside organizations agreed to lend their support. The Washington D.C.-based Pulitzer Center provided funding to cover some of the attorneys’ fees, and Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic is working pro bono with the newspapers’ attorneys.

The lawsuit is ongoing.

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