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January 29, 2012

MILLER
Associated Press

The group that polices the police

By David Hench
dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When Maine State Police Sgt. Robin Parker was pulled over for driving drunk on the Maine Turnpike Dec. 18, he faced criminal penalties as well as a demotion and a two-month suspension from work.

But the potential sanctions don't stop there. Parker's privilege to be a law enforcement officer depends on a certificate awarded to him, as it does for some 5,000 other police and corrections officers in Maine, by the board of trustees at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Trustees can suspend or revoke the certification of any officer who commits a felony or Class D misdemeanor -- such as operating under the influence -- or who is involved in any theft, falsification in official matters, bribery or illegal drug use.

In the past four years, trustees have acted on 120 complaints of criminal misconduct by police and corrections officers in Maine. Eighty-three of those officers were permanently decertified or gave up their certification before the board met, and 29 had their certifications suspended and later restored or were placed on a probationary status.

The goal is to make sure that the people given power to enforce the law are worthy of the public trust, says Linda Smithers, a trustee from Starks who serves as a private citizen representative on the board's three-member complaint review committee.

"You don't want a drunken thief carrying a gun, going out and enforcing the law," Smithers said. "(A person like that) should not be in law enforcement."

The board was given decertification authority in 1991. Then-Attorney General Michael Carpenter advocated for the change after he learned a state police officer accused of using excessive force had been allowed to resign. The officer was then hired by a sheriff's department, but later resigned again only to be hired by a local police department, according to Brian MacMaster, the attorney general's representative on the board and its chairman.

Each agency let the officer resign rather than be fired or prosecuted, he said.

Now, local police chiefs and county sheriffs are required to notify the academy's board whenever an officer is accused of serious misconduct -- the report is then reviewed by the three-member complaint committee. The committee, which meets monthly, first decides whether it is an appropriate referral -- it does not rule on non-criminal violations of department policy.

Members then examine police reports and internal affairs investigations. They often hold informal conferences with the officer and get feedback from his or her agency. The committee has the discretion to take several factors into consideration.

A person's record can be a factor, as is the level of support from the officer's agency, but the officer's conduct is given the most relevance, committee members say.

Members then make a recommendation to the full board, made up of 17 members representing local, county, state and federal public safety agencies as well as the public, an educator and a municipal official.

The complaint committee had not received all the material on Parker by its last meeting and meets next in February, when it is likely to make a recommendation.

It is unlikely Parker's certificate will be revoked or even suspended. Historically, police charged with a first offense of operating under the influence have entered into a consent agreement with the board.

In several cases in 2011 involving drunken driving and other offenses, consent agreements require the officers to avoid new criminal conduct until the middle of 2014. Any new charges would lead to a certificate suspension pending a review by the board.

"If you look at the spirit of the decertification law, you want to decertify people who shouldn't be cops," said Maine State Police Sgt. Mike Edes, president of the Maine State Troopers Association. "(Parker) has taken steps to correct his behavior. There are no dishonesty issues here. It's all bad judgment."

Edes said the state invests a lot of time and money in training state troopers, and if an officer's behavior can be corrected, that person should remain an officer.

MacMaster, the board's chairman, said unions representing police officers have encouraged the board to make more use of suspensions, which carry a temporary loss of enforcement powers. That represents a middle ground between a consent agreement and decertification.

The board decided 34 cases of potentially disqualifying conduct in 2011, up sharply from the 24 decided in 2010.

There were 10 decertifications last year for conduct ranging from domestic violence to possession of child pornography to putting hot sauce in inmates' food.

Another 12 law enforcement and corrections officers voluntarily surrendered their certificates rather than go through board review. In those cases, the alleged misconduct is not described.

MacMaster said the board's records in decertification cases are confidential except for any final discipline.

The egregious cases that lead to decertification are the ones that get the attention, said Saco Police Chief Brad Paul, who has served on the complaint committee the past three years.

"The vast majority of what comes before us, we're able to resolve the issue, come to some kind of acknowledgment of conduct and talk about how we move ahead from here, often times in the form of a consent agreement," Paul said.

The board's review and its sanctions are not intended to be punishment, which is handled by the courts and a person's agency, Paul said.

The board entered consent agreements with 10 officers last year, at least three for drunken driving.

The agreements generally require an officer to avoid any new misconduct, or face immediate suspension of his or her certificate pending a board review.

"We want to know the issues have been addressed by the individuals," Paul said. "There's some acknowledgment of responsibility and a plan for avoiding any kind of repeat incident in the future."

MacMaster said he knows of only two cases in which an officer violated a consent agreement -- both were drunken driving cases in which the officer was again arrested for operating under the influence. One was 10 years ago, the other about five years ago, he said.

South Portland Deputy Chief Amy Berry, another complaint committee member, said that police misconduct is serious business, but only a small fraction of officers undergo board review.

There are 2,610 full-time and 1,020 part-time law enforcement officers in the state, and 1,578 full-time and 136 part-time corrections officers, said John Rogers, executive director of the criminal justice academy and staff person for the board.

In the cases reviewed by the complaint committee in 2011, about half involved corrections officers and half were law enforcement officers, Rogers said.

The committee tries to be consistent in its recommendations to the full board, and this is aided by the makeup of the committee, MacMaster said. Smithers is a member of the public who does labor management consulting, and Paul and Berry are both police executives who have to deal with personnel issues in their own departments. Members recuse themselves when they know the officer under review.

"They have a keen awareness of due process and treating people fair and equal," he said. "There's usually going to be good reason behind why someone may not have made out as well as someone else for what appears to be similar conduct."

The board's approach to certification review has evolved from what was a panel prone to favoritism and tolerance to a board enforcing professional standards as well as any other in the state, Smithers said.

"When I first started, the old boys group, the thin blue line, all that stuff was there. It was pervasive. Personally, as a citizen, it was horrifying," Smithers said.

She said that approach is gone, and not just because the law requires that private citizens be members of the board.

"The law enforcement members of the board are professional people who want it to continue to be a profession and to improve it," she said. "They're not going to cover for the bad boy anymore. ... We're evaluating whether or not this person is suitable for a career in law enforcement."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com



20120124_Parker
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Maine State Police Sgt. Robin Parker pleaded guilty to drunken driving and now must face a board review of his job certification.



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