Maine State Police announces restructuring after 3 weeks of declining to share details
By Callie Ferguson, Bangor Daily News Staff
The Maine State Police is planning to reorganize its police force as part of changes that reflect the agency’s law enforcement priorities and delegation of manpower.
The announcement late Friday afternoon comes after a three-week period where police officials declined interviews, and repeatedly refused to answer questions or provide written materials about the potential restructuring, sparking criticism from a lawmaker and a public information expert.
The agency plans to reorganize troops, though a press release did not say how. The state police will create an overnight shift “to provide an expedited response to critical calls.” It will also bolster its specialty teams and major crimes units, according to the statement. The changes are expected to begin this summer and continue through the year.
“In the field, we will work to implement our new resources while existing Troopers continue to serve and protect our communities. We will also continue to honor all existing call sharing commitments with our county partners,” said Col. John Cote, describing the changes as largely administrative.
Police officials, however, had declined to answer questions about those plans from reporters and a ranking member on the Maine Legislature’s criminal justice committee until Friday despite having briefed Maine sheriffs and chiefs of police. The move was in keeping with the state police’s secretive posture about its decision-making and policies.
The agency also apparently shared plans about its restructuring with its officers using a slideshow presentation on May 19. But spokesperson Shannon Moss declined to provide a copy of the slideshow to a reporter, saying it was confidential under state law because it could reveal investigative techniques and security plans, and endanger the safety of officers.
After a reporter challenged whether those reasons applied to every slide, and asked if she could release a redacted copy, Moss provided a single slide. It reads: “Maine State Police, structural reorganization.”
Moss did not respond to a request for other written documents related to the restructuring.
The lack of transparency prompted criticism last month from Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, as well as Sig Schutz, a lawyer with PrehtiFlaherty and an expert in Maine public records law. Schutz said records describing broad organizational changes, in draft-form or not, are not exempt from state right-to-know laws. Warren observed that the state police frequently use the aforementioned exemptions to block inquiries into its operations.
“I think we all know there is some middle ground, even if it’s just sharing, ‘Yes, there is something coming. Yes, we are working on it. Here’s what our goal is. Here is why,’” Warren said on May 25.
When Warren first learned about the possible restructuring, she reached out to Michael Sauschuck, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, to learn more.
“The MSP are having some initial concept conversations around a potential reorg but nothing is ready for public release at this time,” he replied in a text on May 31.
Structural changes, such as a law enforcement agency’s priorities and how it chooses to spend its public funding, are exactly the kind of information that should be shared with the public, Schutz said.
If some slides within the May 19 presentation contain sensitive information, government officials are supposed to redact the confidential portions, he said.
“It sounds like this was a pretty aggressive position, and I’m putting it lightly,” Schutz said.
At a Maine Sheriffs’ Association meeting on May 19, Cote assured the sheriffs that any coming changes would not affect existing agreements to share patrols with sheriff’s office deputies, Mary-Anne LaMarre, executive director of the sheriffs’ association, said.
The state police and county sheriffs share responsibility for patrolling parts of Maine’s rural areas. In recent years, however, the state police has drawn back some of its coverage due to staffing shortages. The withdrawal has caused friction in some counties where sheriffs feel strained to cover large areas alone.
“That’s the only thing I’m concerned about, is the lack of manpower down here,” said Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis. “The state police, we depend on them for call sharing. They are supposed to have half of Washington County, but they went down to a third recently, and that’s made it so we have had to cover more.”
Cote, who leads the state police, graciously took questions from sheriffs during the meeting, Curtis said, “but everyone was still sitting there wondering, ‘What’s that going to look like?’”
Cote also mentioned the state police would increase its presence on the interstate from Augusta to Houlton, Curtis said. The agency previously had a troop dedicated to patrolling that stretch of highway but hasn’t in recent years.