Police departments all over the country are being challenged to demonstrate their respect for the law and commitment to public service, as new videos of overaggressive policing and excessive force become an almost daily feature on the national news.

But here in Maine, the State Police appear comfortable keeping the public in the dark. The state’s biggest police department withholds so much information about its officers who have been disciplined for misconduct as to make the disclosures meaningless. This has got to change.

In a months-long collaboration between the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and the Bangor Daily News, reporters combed through more than five years of heavily redacted disciplinary records that reveal the names of officers and the discipline they received, but next to nothing about what they did to receive it.

This information is hidden from the general public, who invest enormous responsibility in the officers, as well as from potential future employers, including other police departments. It’s also hidden from the state legislators who have oversight responsibility.

And without detailed information about cases where officers were found to have broken the rules, it’s impossible to tell whether the punishments that were meted out are appropriate. We are expected to trust that the state police higher-ups are getting it right every single time.

Despite the challenges, the newspapers’ reporting team came up with some troubling findings:

• In some cases, the department actually destroys disciplinary records.

•  The department’s domestic violence policy permits it to pursue “non-punitive avenues of assistance” for officers.

• Officers accused of misconduct can end investigations by resigning and leave with a clean record.

Col. John Cote, chief of the State Police, says that the department is simply following state law, which requires the disclosure of only certain information from internal affairs investigations.

It’s the same for all state employees, Cote said, but police officers are not just ordinary employees. At their discretion, they can arrest, detain and use deadly force against members of the public. They do much of their work without direct supervision, and the public ought to know that the State Police are held to the highest standard. In court, defendants should know whether the state’s star witness has a history of dishonesty.

The State Police are hiding behind an overly strict reading of the law, and one that is not followed by other police departments and county sheriffs who fully disclose disciplinary actions.

The interpretation is the subject of a lawsuit brought by both newspapers. While the case proceeds, the reporters dug into available records.

They found that the department has negotiated labor contracts with the state troopers union, detailing the circumstances under which an officer can expunge his or her disciplinary record. Not only is the official record clean, but any paperwork from the investigation also is destroyed. The records don’t exist, and the State Police told the reporting team that they don’t even know how many records have been disposed of in this way.

The department’s leaders may think that they are protecting its officers from unwarranted scrutiny, but they are doing the opposite. Hiding information creates doubt about whether state troopers operate under the same rules as everyone else. Transparency about discipline would separate  a small number of rule breakers from the majority of officers who take their duty seriously. Secrecy tars the whole department.

There is another reason for fully revealing who has been disciplined and why.

It sends a message to other police officers, not just those in the Maine State Police but also those in the smaller agencies around the state, who look at the State Police as the top in their profession. When the discipline is in the public record, they all know what is permitted and what is not. And when they see a fellow officer break the rules and walk away with a clean record, that sends a message, too.

The Maine State Police should not wait for the courts to force the department to comply with the spirit of the law, which requires disclosure of disciplinary records. The Legislature should not wait, either, and should amend the law to clarify the agency’s responsibilities.

They should do so before the desire to protect a few bad actors tarnishes the reputation of the whole department.

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