Editor’s note: This is part of a series about how county law enforcement officers in Maine escape accountability. Read the other stories here. The series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
In addition to producing vague or incomplete discipline records, many counties purge their law enforcement discipline records after periods of time negotiated with unions, complicating efforts to track misbehavior and resulting in varied treatment of officers depending on the county that employs them.
For some of Maine’s county patrol and corrections officers, records of misbehavior will follow them until they retire. For others, their misconduct will be erased from their personnel files in a matter of months. It all depends on the terms their county negotiated with their union and the severity of the misconduct.
In many cases, even if counties remove records of misbehavior from an officer’s personnel file, and no longer use them to make decisions about that officer’s promotions and future discipline, counties still keep the records and will turn them over as part of public records requests or lawsuits.
But this isn’t the case for all counties, making it impossible for the public to get a full picture of some officers’ discipline histories. For example, Franklin County removes and destroys records of minor discipline — which includes all discipline less severe than a suspension — after 18 months.
Even though most counties remove discipline records after specified periods of time, those counties’ union contracts stipulate records will stay in personnel files longer if the officer commits repeat offenses.
Five counties aren’t required to remove discipline records at all. Records for Androscoggin, Piscataquis and Waldo county patrol and corrections officers are never removed from personnel files, according to their union contracts. The same is true for patrol officers employed by Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
Kennebec County removes patrol officers’ suspensions after one year upon request. Aroostook removes suspensions after two years.
Other counties keep discipline on file for much longer. Cumberland County patrol or corrections officers suspended six days or more won’t have a record of that suspension pulled from their file for eight years. A Cumberland County corrections supervisor would have to wait 10 years.
The differences across counties stem from varying contract negotiations, said Bill Doyle of the National Correctional Employees Union.
“We agree to longer amounts [of time]; we agree to shorter amounts,” said Doyle, who is also the mayor of Saco. In some circumstances, counties “may be willing to put more money on the table” in order to keep discipline in files longer, Doyle explained, adding “it comes down to negotiation.”
Maine law mandates discipline records of local government employees be preserved for 60 years after the employee leaves the job. But that law also creates an exception for record destruction provisions in union contracts.
Municipal police contracts demonstrate similar differences. For example, the Bangor Police Department keeps all its discipline records, according to the union contract. Meanwhile, the Portland Police Department will remove all written reprimands after a year, all suspensions of five days or less after three years and all suspensions of five days or more after five years.
Here’s how Maine counties handle discipline for their officers, according to union contracts provided by the counties, which you can access here:
Androscoggin County – There is no mention of removing discipline from personnel files in either of the contracts the county has with the unions representing corrections officers, deputies and dispatchers, and their superiors.
Aroostook County – Written warnings for patrol and corrections officers are removed from personnel files after one year, provided there is not a second offense. Suspensions are removed after two years, provided there is not a second offense in that time.
Cumberland County – For deputies and corrections officers, discipline records are never removed from personnel files. But they cannot be used to make decisions about future discipline or promotions after varying amounts of time. The county can’t use written warnings after six months or written reprimands after one year. It can’t look back at suspensions of one to two days to make employment decisions after three years have passed. It can’t use suspensions of three to five days after five years have passed. It can’t use suspensions of six days or more after eight years.
For Cumberland County corrections supervisors, the records are removed only for promotional considerations, and the periods of time are longer. Written warnings are not considered in employment matters after three years, written reprimands after five years, one-to-five day suspensions after seven years, and longer suspensions after 10 years.
Franklin County – Minor discipline can’t be considered for progressive discipline after 18 months for corrections and patrol officers, per union contracts. A public records request showed that minor discipline records were destroyed after 18 months. Suspensions can’t be used after four years.
Hancock County – Records of oral warnings are removed from personnel files after one year, written reprimands after two years and suspensions after three years.
Kennebec County – Kennebec County removes written reprimands from corrections officers’ files after one year, and also removes suspensions for “use of force, sexual harassment and inmate fraternization” after one year, upon request from the employee. However, if there is another offense in that time, then records of both offenses are removed after 18 months. For patrol officers, Kennebec removes all discipline after one year, but suspensions are removed only upon request.
Knox County – Knox County gives the sheriff discretion on whether to remove discipline. An officer can request removal after 18 months, but it’s up to the sheriff whether to remove the record.
Lincoln County – Lincoln County’s contract with its patrol officers does not mention removing discipline from personnel files.
Oxford County – After two years, Oxford County removes records of suspensions from the personnel files of deputies and detectives. The corrections officers’ union contract doesn’t state that records of suspensions be removed after two years; instead it mandates that records of suspensions are not to be used for progressive discipline after that time. For deputies and detectives, lesser discipline is removed from files after 18 months. For corrections officers, discipline is no longer used for progressive discipline after one year.
Piscataquis County – Piscataquis County’s contracts do not mention removing discipline from personnel files.
Penobscot County – Penobscot County cannot use counseling and verbal/oral reprimands for progessive discipline after one year, written reprimands after three years, and suspensions, corrective probation and demotions after five years. Officers can request that discipline be removed from files after the specified time, provided they did not commit any additional offenses.
Sagadahoc County – Sagadahoc County’s contract with its patrol officers does not mention removing discipline from personnel files.
Waldo County – Waldo County’s contracts do not mention removing discipline from personnel files.
Washington County – Washington County removes oral reprimands from personnel files after six months, written reprimands after one year and suspensions after 18 months.
York County – For corrections officers and sheriff’s office captains, York County removes all discipline less severe than a suspension from personnel files after one year. For patrol officers, the length of time is a little longer: 15 months. Suspensions are removed from corrections officers’ files after 18 months, captains’ after two years, and patrol officer files after 27 months. Once removed, records are put into a “purge” file, which can only be accessed in the event of litigation or other legally mandated disclosures, such as a public records request.
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