A judge has ruled against a former South Portland police officer who sued her department last year to block the release of records about her past misconduct in a case that has wider implications for the department.

Kaitlyn Thurlow, who now works for the Gorham Police Department, went to court in May 2021 to stop city officials from releasing her discipline records to another officer and a local lawyer who independently asked for them under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Police discipline records are public under state law.

The case took on wider importance because it asked a judge to interpret whether a provision in the patrol officer’s union contract requires city officials to destroy disciplinary records after certain periods of time. The practice has drawn scrutiny in a state where police departments handle discipline matters with little transparency and consistency, as revealed by recent Bangor Daily News investigations.

Then, in an unexpected twist this winter, a Maine group that advocates for government transparency published copies of Thurlow’s discipline records online as part of a larger database of police records, preempting the court’s decision and thwarting Thurlow’s efforts to keep her disciplinary history a secret. The records show the department reprimanded her for repeatedly crashing her cruiser and sending inappropriate text messages to other police dog handlers.

Five months later, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice John O’Neil Jr. sided against the officer in a finding that acknowledged the integrity of Maine’s Right to Know laws. In a June 24 decision, he ordered the city to release Thurlow’s records, as well as other officer disciplinary records that lawyer Marcus Wraight asked for but were held up while the case was pending.

The case hinged on an interpretation of the word “remove.” The South Portland patrol officer’s union agreement requires the city to “remove” discipline records from an officer’s personnel file after certain periods of time, though the department still maintains copies in an internal affairs folder, according to court records.

The city believed those copies were still subject to disclosure and intended to hand over Thurlow’s written reprimands in response to records requests by Wraight and former Animal Patrol Officer Corey Hamilton.

After learning of the request, Thurlow asked the court to intervene, arguing the city should have destroyed all copies of her records after a year, per the contract.

The judge disagreed.

“The use of this specific language in the [union contract], although somewhat ambiguous, is suggestive that the intent behind it was to prevent aging written disciplines from playing a role in later, employment related decisions,” O’Neil wrote in a June 24 order. “Not, as the Plaintiffs would have the Court read it, to prevent their possible disclosure to the public.”

He arrived at that conclusion in part because the Legislature requires courts “to construe and apply FOAA’s provisions ‘liberally,’” he wrote.

Thurlow has already notified the court that she intends to appeal the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, known as the Law Court. She also asked the court to halt its order to release her records until her appeal is heard. Wraight said on Monday that he had not yet received any records.

Thurlow’s attorney, Jonathan Goodman, and South Portland officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Callie Ferguson

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