Editor’s note: This is the third 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. The Pulitzer Center helped fund the series.
The first time Justin “Jay” Cooley hit his wife, he tried to explain it away. It was May 2019, and, for nearly a year, Amy Burns had watched the man she loved disappear into an alcohol-fueled rage.
“I was frustrated,” Cooley texted Burns. “That’s all. Jesus. I hit you on the top of the head. It wasn’t out of anger.” Then he called her a moron for suggesting otherwise.
Burns had thought she could trust Cooley. He was a Maine State Police trooper after all, one of the state’s elite officers. She also thought she could trust his employer.
On May 24, 2019, she called her husband’s troop commander. She told him about Cooley’s drinking and that Cooley had hurled a bottle at her, she said. After nearly a year of escalating aggression, Burns had fled their home in Wales, distraught and afraid.
But instead of responding to protect her safety or hold Cooley accountable, Cooley’s superiors appeared to wait. It was the start of a weeks-long process of Burns trying to get the state police to take her allegations seriously.
Forty-two days passed after Burns first reported Cooley throwing the bottle, and at least 12 days passed after she said she reported Cooley hitting her, before an officer referred the matter to an outside investigator. In late June, state police again did not dispatch a police officer or alert 911 when Burns reported that Cooley, apparently drunk, sent his wife a picture of a gun and threatened to shoot up her son’s belongings.
“No one was listening. No one cares,” she said. “If I had died in this whole situation, no one would have known because only I have the information I have.”
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Her account provides a rare look into the state police’s handling of a report of domestic violence among its ranks and illuminates how even severe misconduct can be kept out of public records and, therefore, the public eye. The Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald exposed Cooley’s case as part of a joint investigation into the Maine State Police’s secretive handling of officer misconduct.
Burns provided hundreds of text messages, call logs and text logs, and more than 90 minutes of audio recordings that back up her allegations of violence and a slow police response. A friend whom Burns confided in corroborated parts of Burns’ account.
Had officers examined her evidence, they might have found reason to charge Cooley with a crime as early as her first report on May 24, 2019. It would be another 76 days before he was charged with domestic violence assault, in a criminal case that is still pending. Only when Burns showed a trooper the text from Cooley in which he admitted to hitting her did state police take steps to start a criminal investigation.
Even then, Burns felt as though the agency allowed the ordeal to be closed quietly, with no public accountability. The state police did not fire Cooley. In fact it did not discipline Cooley at all, which would have left a public record of his conduct. He resigned, and state police redacted much of his resignation letter. An internal investigation into whether Cooley’s supervisors mishandled the situation was inconclusive, but it’s not possible to know what they said as the investigative report is not public. The agency did not discipline the supervisors.
Other public information, drawn from documents at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which licenses officers, focuses on Cooley’s actions, not those of others in the state police. Neither the state police, academy nor the court publicly documented Burns’ feelings of being disregarded, or that weeks elapsed between her first report and the time Cooley was charged with domestic violence.
Burns took the unusual step of speaking publicly because she said it may be the only way to address the Maine State Police’s culture of silence.
Col. John Cote, the chief of the state police, declined to respond to Burns’ assertions that Cooley’s supervisors failed to quickly start a criminal investigation, citing personnel confidentiality laws. But all troopers know they must report potential misconduct of their peers as soon as they learn of it, Cote said.
“I do not believe the anecdotal ‘code of silence’ is a problem within the State Police. Our members value the trust of the citizens we serve and would not allow misconduct to go unaddressed,” Cote said in an attorney-approved written response to questions.
But the secretive process of disciplining officers means it’s nearly impossible for Burns or the public to know whether an internal investigation into Cooley’s supervisors was fair and thorough.
“The problem with this is they are not accountable to anybody,” Burns said. “If [Cooley] was a normal citizen, things would have turned out a whole lot different. But he wasn’t.”
Through his attorney, Allan Lobozzo, Cooley declined an interview request.
Speaking on Cooley’s behalf, Lobozzo said Burns didn’t initially report Cooley hitting her. But Cooley is planning to plead guilty to one count of domestic violence assault, Lobozzo said. A plea hearing is planned for April 28 in Androscoggin County Superior Court.
Lobozzo had access to Cooley’s personnel file, including the investigation into whether Burns’ report was handled properly, but he declined to discuss specific allegations and how the state police responded.
“It’s clear her reports evolved with the telling,” Lobozzo said. “When she initially talked to the state police, she didn’t disclose an assault at all. She asked for help for her husband.”
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Complaints against police are confidential in Maine, and the state police do not publicize internal affairs statistics. Unlike in other states, police in Maine routinely stop internal investigations if an officer resigns, meaning the facts of any case may not be documented — a potential problem for future employers conducting background checks on law enforcement hires.
Combating public doubts about the police discipline process requires demonstrated, consistent transparency, said Luther Reynolds, who has made public accountability a priority since he became chief of the police department in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2018.
“We talk about transparency, but talk is cheap,” said Reynolds, who releases annual internal affairs data, trains officers to hold each other accountable and publicizes when he fires officers. “Frankly, [people are] tired of talking, and, as a nation, they’ve made that known.”
There are several ways the state’s largest police force ensures the internal affairs process is “fair and conducted appropriately,” said Cote, the chief. For instance, internal affairs operations are scrutinized by the state’s Bureau of Human Resources, and troopers have the right to pursue mediation and arbitration under their union contract.
But there is no independent, outside review of the internal affairs process, leaving lawmakers, complainants, researchers, civil rights groups and the public in the dark.
Burns and Cooley bonded over a love of working dogs and the outdoors, marrying in 2018. It wasn’t long after they bought a house together in Wales that Burns noticed Cooley getting drunk at unexpected times, she said. Soon his drinking took over his days off, and the peace in their new marriage evaporated.
During his days off, Cooley drank and followed Burns around the house, berating her for failing as a parent to her then-22-year-old son who lived with them, she said. One night in the spring of 2019, as they sat in bed arguing, she said Cooley grabbed her wrist and twisted it. On three mornings she can remember, Cooley pulled a gun on her while she stood in the kitchen. When she recoiled, he played it off as a joke, she said.
Deb Delano, a former coworker of Burns’, said Burns told her around June 2019 that Cooley had pointed a gun at her.
“I said, ‘Yeah, you need to get out,” said Delano, of Phippsburg. “That’s not playing.”
In early May, Cooley came back to the house, enraged over a minor dispute with a neighbor. Burns was sitting near the front door, and Cooley slammed his hand down on the top of her head, she said.
She fled the house and texted Cooley. Instead of apologizing, Cooley lashed out. “Dramatics,” Cooley texted her on May 11, 2019. “I hit you on top of the head Amy out of frustration. Come on Moron.”
Two weeks later he erupted again. After drinking with a friend for hours, Cooley came to bed after midnight on May 24, 2019, Burns said. They began to argue, sitting up in bed in the dark. Burns recorded him on her cell phone. She wanted to show him how ridiculous he sounded when he was drunk, she said.
Between 1:44 a.m. and 3:16 a.m., Burns recorded 14 videos spanning more than 90 minutes of verbal attacks. Cooley shouted and mocked Burns when she tried to respond. When Burns got out of bed to leave, Cooley threw a bottle, she said. It struck the door as it closed behind her, a moment not recorded on video.
Burns knew she needed help. When the sun came up, she called Cooley’s troop commander, Lt. Kyle Tilsley. Burns said she is certain she told Tilsley about Cooley’s drinking and about the bottle he threw. She does not remember whether she told Tilsley about Cooley hitting her. But what she wanted most was for the drinking and behavior to stop.
“Tilsley said unless his drinking actually interferes with his work, they can’t do anything about it,” Burns said.
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State police policy requires supervisors to immediately report up the chain of command any signs of domestic violence within the ranks. When the colonel learns of potential domestic violence, he must initiate an investigation, whether criminal, internal or both. Investigating officers are taught to preserve evidence as quickly as possible to prevent tampering or coercion.
Suspected officers “must be treated in the same manner as any other DV suspect,” the policy states. Those investigating “shall respond to the victim in a manner that assures her or him that the case will be investigated and handled thoroughly and professionally.”
The next day, May 25, 2019, Cooley’s sergeant, Dan Hanson, texted Burns. It’s unclear what information Tilsley had shared with him.
“Was checking in to see how you are doing,” Hanson wrote.
“It’s been a rough couple days,” she said.
Text messages show that Hanson did not mention investigating Cooley or calling in an outside investigator. Burns said they only texted that day; they did not speak on the phone. It’s not known what Hanson did behind the scenes, but he did not tell Burns he was forwarding the complaint to his superiors or ask any questions about what had happened, Burns said. He did not offer to connect her with a domestic violence agency. He did not inquire about weapons in the house.
‘They never dispatched anyone’
Over the next month, Burns began to experience unexplained health problems and went to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for tests. With his wife hours away, Cooley acted out against Burns’ adult son, who has an intellectual disability and wasn’t working.
Using his cell phone, Cooley filmed himself walking up the stairs into her son’s room at home in Wales on June 23, 2019. He sent Burns the video.
“Somebody thought they could live in my house and do nothing, and do nothing, when I did everything,” Cooley said. “OK … you’re done.”
Then he tore a computer from the wall and dumped two monitors on the floor. “Best of luck, brah,” he said. “Done.”
At 8:33 p.m., Cooley sent Burns a picture of her son’s computer monitors standing up in the backyard.
“I’ll send a pic to [your son],” Cooley wrote. “Think I god damn care? I’m done bro.”
At 8:34 p.m., Cooley sent another photo. It showed a Glock-style handgun on the back deck. The monitors stood in the background.
“I ain’t joking,” Cooley wrote. “Monitors are getting shot bro … Wanna see??? I’ll face time.”
Overwhelmed and terrified, Burns called Cooley’s sergeant, Hanson. She told him that, at that moment, Cooley was drunk, armed and making threats at their house in Wales, she said. She later found the monitors smashed.
“I told [Hanson] everything that was going on,” Burns said, including that Cooley had previously hit her on the head.
“I had evidence. I had video. I had texts. You’d think at that point, if there was a drunk man with a gun, they’d dispatch someone. But they never dispatched anyone.”
State police confirmed there was no record of police being dispatched to the home.
Though Cooley’s actions that day would later help form the basis for criminal charges, at that moment Hanson responded only with an assurance that the agency had found a rehabilitation program for Cooley in Florida to address his drinking.
During the conversation, Hanson did not address Burns’ reports of Cooley’s violence or his threats to shoot up her son’s belongings, she said.
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The state police’s domestic violence policy permits the agency to provide “non-punitive avenues of assistance” to officers to try to stop their misconduct. But treatment for addiction shouldn’t come at the expense of the police force’s obligation to address domestic violence as a crime, said Diane Wetendorf, a Chicago-based advocate for victims who has spent 30 years researching domestic abuse by police officers.
Since 1996, anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime is prohibited from having firearms, spelling career death for a cop. So when police choose to address only the drinking, they can potentially prevent more serious professional consequences for their colleague, said Wetendorf, who helped advise the FBI in the 1990s on how to address abuse by police and shaped model policies used across the country today.
After a Boston nurse heard Cooley screaming at Burns through the phone, a hospital social worker came to visit her in her room, Burns said. It was June 24, 2019. They talked for hours, and Burns made a plan to leave the relationship.
When she spoke with Hanson later that day, the first thing she told him was that she planned to file for a protection from abuse order.
Instead of initiating an investigation, however, she said Hanson sounded surprised. “He said something to the effect of, ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ or ‘Just a minute,’” Burns said. “He said basically, ‘Wait, he’s going to rehab.’”
How or when a report of a crime reaches police officers should not change their responsibility to treat it as a potentially deadly situation, said Sagadahoc County domestic violence investigator Steve Edmondson.
“Whose ever desk it lands on, whether it’s another officer or a supervisor, it needs to go up the food chain immediately with no hesitancy,” said Edmondson, who was not involved with Cooley’s case. “It will create hard feelings, but it has to happen. Because lives are in danger.”
Burns didn’t call 911 directly because she was afraid, she said. She thought telling Cooley’s supervisors should have been enough to hold Cooley accountable.
Her son asked twice about calling 911, “and Jay lost his mind. He said we were threatening him. I guess I could have done it behind his back. It was mentioned a couple times, and he went berserk,” she said.
‘I just wish we could have gotten him help’
On June 29, 2019, with Cooley in a Florida rehabilitation center, Hanson came by the Wales house to pick up Cooley’s cruiser and guns. Burns again offered to show him her texts and video evidence, but she recalled Hanson declining to take it. Finally, on July 5, 2019, Burns forwarded some of Cooley’s text messages to Hanson from earlier in May, when he talked about hitting her.
Hanson told her to do what she felt was safest for her.
“The position you’re in is not an easy one,” Hanson texted her. “I can not give you advice as it could be viewed as tampering since I’m his supervisor. I just wish we could have got him help before it got as bad as it did.”
When she told him again — this time in a written text message — that she was filing for a protection from abuse order, his tone appeared to shift, and he said he would alert the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office confirmed it received the referral from the state police that day. Eleven days had passed since she had been in the hospital and first told Hanson in a phone call that she planned to file for the no-contact order.
“Where you have indicated you want to pursue a PFA and have made reference to an assault you should consider contacting Androscoggin County. It’s completely your decision but I will still be contacting them in regards to it since you have advised me of it,” Hanson texted.
Within 15 minutes, Burns’ phone rang. It was a sheriff’s deputy. Soon she was connected with Troy Young, an investigator with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office who specializes in domestic violence.
In a brief phone interview this month, Hanson declined to talk about Cooley, citing Cooley’s ongoing criminal case in which Hanson may be called as a witness.
“I will tell you that at the point in time that abuse was alleged, a complaint was made,” Hanson said. “I made a complaint, and that’s that. This is an active case. It’s in the court system right now.”
Hanson declined to answer questions, said it was inappropriate for a reporter to call him on his cell phone on his day off, and hung up.
Tilsley also declined to respond to specific questions about Burns’ allegations.
Young, the sheriff’s office investigator, took her allegations seriously from the start, Burns said. She filed for a protection from abuse order on July 8, 2019. Young charged Cooley with domestic violence assault Aug. 8, 2019, while he was out of state.
The following month, the charges increased with a second count of domestic violence assault and one count of domestic violence stalking.
By the end of August, Burns filed for divorce. She also filed an internal complaint against Hanson and Tilsley for mishandling her reports of domestic violence.
Cooley didn’t go on leave until October 2019. He resigned in January 2020, according to his redacted employment records, which contained no mention of the criminal proceedings against him.
The academy revoked his ability to be a police officer in Maine effective Sept. 15, 2020, finding there was enough evidence to conclude he had assaulted his wife.
State police policy requires the agency to report to the criminal justice academy when an officer is named in a protection order. But there is no mention of the no-contact order in Cooley’s academy case.
State police should have made the first notification to the academy by Aug. 7, 2019. Public records show it notified the academy 54 days later, after Cooley made his first court appearance.
“It is absolutely critical to all of our safety that law enforcement do what they say they’re going to do,” said Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “If you’ve got a policy that says you’re going to do right by victims, even if it’s harm caused by one of your own, then you need to do that.”
Burns felt the state police internal affairs investigation pitted her word against Tilsley and Hanson, and hinged on her perceived credibility.
During Burns’ first interview with an investigator from the Office of Professional Standards, she said Cooley had pointed his gun at her. The investigator stopped her from continuing, Burns said. He was there only to ask about Tilsley and Hanson. An internal review of Cooley would wait until later, she said she was told.
But, in a subsequent phone conversation with Lt. Anna Love, who is in charge of internal investigations, Love asked Burns why she had not told Love sooner that Cooley had pointed his weapon at her. It was exasperating, Burns said.
In November 2019, Love emailed Burns to say her allegation that Tilsley and Hanson had mishandled her complaint of domestic violence was “not sustained.” It meant that, according to the state police, there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove her complaint.
But Burns cannot know what the two officers told investigators. With no outside audits or oversight, the public has no option but to trust the department to police itself.
“Who failed? Tilsley, Hanson and Anna Love. So they all did,” she said. “The state police are accountable to no one but themselves.”
Bangor Daily News reporter Callie Ferguson and Bangor Daily News editor Erin Rhoda contributed to this report.