Law enforcement leaders from around the state raised the alarm Monday against legislation that would eliminate a controversial police intelligence agency that critics say has strayed from its original mission and compromises Mainers’ privacy.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, would eliminate the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a division of the Maine State Police, and return more than $1 million to the general fund.

Warren has questioned the value of the so-called fusion center since last summer, when the agency came under fire for its practices following a federal lawsuit alleging constitutional breaches, and a hack of its documents that raised questions about the value of the intelligence operation.

“Recipients of Maine government funding better be able to prove to taxpayers that they’re worth the money,” Warren said. “If you are a public safety agency that cannot answer the question of how you create public safety, you should not receive government dollars.”

But Michael Sauschuck, Maine’s public safety commissioner, testified Monday before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that the public would be less safe without the center, one of dozens of such intelligence agencies created nationwide after 9/11 to prevent terrorist attacks but which now focus largely on domestic crimes.

Domestic extremism has become a top concern nationwide, Sauschuck said, and he pointed to the uneasy days after Jan. 6 when state leaders prepared for possible local attacks following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol staged by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

“To think there would be 80 fusion centers geared to share information in a fluid and timely manner and have the state of Maine be a gaping black hole for the lack of information sharing is scary,” Sauschuck said. “It’s certainly scary to me, and it should be scary for you.”

It’s still unclear what appetite lawmakers have for eliminating police programs as opposed to reforming them. The Department of Public Safety proposed its own legislation to tweak oversight of the fusion center, which would require managers to submit annual reports to the Legislature and answer questions about its operations annually. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-York, was held over from the last session.

Both that bill and Warren’s bill to abolish the center will be scheduled for additional work sessions and committee votes before they move on to the full Legislature.

Sauschuck and others have said that intelligence analysts at the center use open-source information, such as public social media accounts, to create bulletins and warnings about potentially dangerous people or to alert agencies of events in other parts of the state or the country. Its agents do not have arrest powers and do not conduct criminal investigations but serve as a sort of clearinghouse for information that is shared among the state’s law enforcement agencies.

One example of the agency’s usefulness came last week, said Lt. Michael Johnston, who manages the Maine Information and Analysis Center. A 16-year-old from Roxbury, Maine, left home with a convicted sex offender bound for New York City.

“As a result of MIAC assisting the sharing of information, law enforcement was freed up to focus on their investigative efforts,” Johnston said.

Critics, however, say the centers have been used to track lawful demonstrators, sometimes passing information about groups to the the center’s partners in private industry who own critical infrastructure like power and gas lines, for instance. That was the case for activists opposing the CMP corridor project to Quebec, who were the subject of an intelligence bulletin that was hacked and released online about protest activities in the Forks.

Others said the center’s focus on drug interdiction was part of a failed approach to criminalizing addiction. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said the agency over time has proven to be exactly the threat to constitutional liberties that opponents once feared. Other opponents who testified were from the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College and the nonprofit Health Advocacy Alliance.

Among the  proponents of the MIAC program were the Maine Sheriff’s Association, the Maine Emergency Management Agency, the colonel of the Maine Warden Service, and Adj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, head of the Maine National Guard and Commissioner for the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.

Monday’s hearing rekindled a debate that began last May, when a state trooper from Scarborough filed a lawsuit alleging he suffered retaliation from his employer when he tried to blow the whistle on unethical and illegal practices at the center, alleging in the federal suit that the agency kept an illegal gun registry and collected information on peaceful demonstrators and activists.

But a federal judge in March dismissed all of the counts of the suit alleging privacy violations, leaving only two counts that center on the alleged workplace retaliation that the trooper suffered, meaning the judge will not weigh in on the validity of his claims.

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