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Story Publication logo June 3, 2022

Maine State Police Releases Unredacted Discipline Records After Newspaper Lawsuit

Blue, black, and white illustration of the silhouettes of three police officers standing next to each other. The background is a collage of redacted documents.

Maine’s two largest, competing newspapers joined together to document how the state’s biggest police...

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One Maine State Police trooper falsely inflated the reading of his cruiser’s speedometer to present a false mileage claim, for which he was punished with a 20-day suspension.

Soon after, a supervisor in the same troop was suspended for 30 days for giving bad directions to his subordinate, which resulted in that subordinate misbehaving. The supervisor then failed to tell his superiors about it as he was required to do.

These are some of the details of misconduct revealed in discipline records that a judge recently forced the state police to unredact, after a year-long lawsuit was brought against the agency by the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald.

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The unredacted records prove that the state’s largest police force blacked out descriptions of misconduct that are public under Maine law. In two cases, they confirm the newspapers’ previous reporting that uncovered what some of the redactions sought to keep secret. Some of the lifted redactions also show how the agency consistently uses vague language to obscure the true nature of officer offenses.

They also raise questions about the State Police’s justifications for going to court in the first place. In one instance, the documents show how the agency fought to keep even boilerplate language a secret.

The Maine attorney general’s office, which represented the state police in court, turned over 16 pages of discipline records, for four officers and one analyst, on Friday. In total, the agency lifted eight of 10 redactions. The remaining two are presumed to be related to officers’ medical conditions, as that information is not public.

The news outlets, however, believed from the context included in the records that the agency withheld information about officer wrongdoing. Maine law requires those details to be disclosed as a way to strike a balance between protecting the privacy of state employees while being transparent about when they misbehave.

As a result of Judge William Anderson’s order, the police agency unredacted the only sentence in a disciplinary finding that described the reason Corporal Kyle Pelletier got in trouble: He had manipulated his cruiser mileage in July 2019 and then lied about it. His actions violated the agency’s code of conduct policy and its vehicle use policy.

In addition to being suspended for 20 days, Pelletier had to pay back the state $108 for the false vehicle use and was put on probation for one year. During the suspension, he was allowed to use two days of vacation per pay period to keep his health insurance. He had to turn in his unmarked cruiser for a fully marked one.

It had also been a secret why Sargent Elisha Fowlie was suspended for the final month of 2019. Similar to Pelletier, the state police had blacked out what appeared to be the only description of his misconduct.

Lifting the redactions shed a little more light on the situation, but the agency’s vague language leaves specific details unclear. In what’s described as “July/August” of 2019, Fowlie “provided inappropriate directions to a subordinate resulting in misconduct.” He “also failed to provide proper direction related to photographic documentation of the misconduct,” a previously redacted part of the record states. Fowlie then failed to inform his superiors, in violation of the agency’s code of conduct and chain of command policies.

In addition to being suspended for 30 days, Fowlie was asked to serve a year of probation, give up his specialty assignment and risked being demoted to trooper if he committed similar misconduct.

Former State Police attorney, Christopher Parr, originally declined to give the newspapers specific justifications for each redaction in the discipline records, saying in January 2021 that to do so “would, in effect, disclose the very types of information those provisions are intended to protect.”

But Parr said, generally, the state police redacted language “for one or more” of the following reasons: it referred to medical conditions; proposed discipline that was not ultimately imposed; statements by officers that fall under so-called Garrity protections, which prevent employers from forcing their employees to incriminate themselves during an internal affairs process; or information that described “in more detail alleged misconduct already publicly disclosed” by other “final written decisions.”

The lifted redactions confirm that all but one of these reasons did not apply.

For instance, in the discipline record for Trooper David Coflesky, the state police had previously redacted an entire paragraph that contained generic language about how his conduct ran afoul of the agency’s values.

Lifting the redaction shows it states: “Trooper Coflesky recognizes as a member of the Maine State Police, he occupies a law enforcement position of responsibility and trust, which requires a high standard of conduct and reliability. He also understands this conduct contradicted the Maine State Police Core Principles, the Maine State Police Code of Conduct and the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Trooper Coflesky recognizes his conduct, as outlined above, demonstrated a failure to meet those standards and agrees the disciplinary action was warranted.”

Indeed, the redacted version of the record provided earlier to reporters contained some description of what Coflesky did, though the reporters turned up more details over the course of their investigation. During a March 2016 trip to Killington, Vermont, Coflesky drunkenly drove someone’s else’s car without permission, actions that were potentially punishable as a crime.

He was not criminally charged, but Maine’s law enforcement certification board put him on a three-year probation following the incident. The state police gave him a 60-day suspension.

In the case of Trooper Dan Murray, several unredacted paragraphs in his discipline record confirm information that was already known to the public because it had been reported at the time by the Morning Sentinel. On August 26, 2019, Murray asked a 15-year-old boy who only had a learner’s permit to drive him home from a Waterville bar because he wasn’t sober enough to get behind the wheel.

Police charged Murray with the misdemeanor crime of accompanying a motor vehicle permittee while impaired after stopping the car for failing to turn on its headlights, a case that was still pending when Murray received a four-day suspension from the state police.

The judge left one redaction to Murray’s record remain, however, because it apparently covers up medical information that is confidential under Maine law.

A lifted redaction for Christopher Gay, an analyst for the Maine Department of Public Safety, showed that the Department originally punished him with a three-day suspension for work performance issues. It later agreed to reduce the punishment to a “paper suspension,” reimbursing him for the three days he missed work without pay.

The Pulitzer Center helped fund the newspapers’ reporting and lawsuit.