In discipline records that provide one of the only public windows into officer malfeasance, the Maine State Police includes so few details about its troopers’ misbehavior that the public cannot know what the officers did wrong by reading them. Credit: Graphic by Coralie Cross / BDN

The Maine State Police must turn over more information about officer misconduct after the state’s two largest newspapers successfully sued the agency to force it to comply with Maine public records law.

In a May 26 ruling, a Penobscot County Superior Court judge ordered the state’s largest police force to unredact portions of trooper discipline records.

The decision comes more than a year after the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald jointly sued, arguing that final disciplinary records are public under the Maine Freedom of Access Act and reflect a core principle that with public service comes public accountability.

“That law was created to enable the public to access and monitor the actions of our government officials. The decision is particularly important at a time when police decision-making has been called into question in Maine and throughout the United States,” said Berney Kubetz, the attorney for the Bangor Daily News.

“The decision underscores the need for Maine law enforcement agencies to open their records to public scrutiny, including especially the records of police officers who have been disciplined but allowed to continue in their jobs or who are relieved of their duties and simultaneously paid severance packages funded by taxpayer dollars,” he continued.

The newspapers had separately requested five years worth of discipline records under the Maine Freedom of Access Act and used them to collaboratively investigate the state police’s lack of transparency around officer misconduct. State troopers’ records were written in such a vague way that, in most cases, it was impossible to deduce why the officer was punished. The reporters uncovered some of the misconduct concealed in the records, learning that the agency sometimes handed down lenient sanctions for serious misbehavior.

But other misbehavior has remained secret because, of the 85 pages of documents the state police turned over, 14 of them contained redactions — a move the news outlets argued was unlawful.

The state police submitted a legal justification for each redaction, but, in many cases, the court did not agree, finding that the state had redacted public information about trooper misconduct that had resulted in punishment.

“Therefore this information was not redacted for just and proper cause and must be disclosed,” determined Justice William Anderson.

The judge also found the state’s search for records to be inadequate and ordered officials to conduct another search. Some of the disciplinary documents referred to other final records of discipline, for example, but those were not turned over to reporters.

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“The state is hereby ordered to perform a supplemental search for the ‘missing documents’ which shall include records of final discipline and settlement agreements for the period described in plaintiffs’ FOAA request,” the judge ordered.

In three instances the judge allowed the state police’s redactions to stand when medical information would have been disclosed. The court also allowed another redaction to stand on the grounds that it related to a work plan or performance issue.

The reporting and lawsuit were funded in part by the Washington D.C.-based Pulitzer Center. Law students at the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School worked pro bono with the newspapers’ attorneys.

The state police did not immediately respond to a request for comment or say when it intended to turn over the unredacted versions of its discipline records.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...

Callie Ferguson

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