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Story Publication logo February 1, 2021

Somerset County Hands Over Officer Discipline Records After Denying Their Existence Last Year

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A Maine State Police cruiser is shown outside the Penobscot County Jail on May 12, 2020. Image by Natalie Williams/Bangor Daily News
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In 2017, the top elected officials in Maine's westernmost county took a rare vote to ask the...

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Sheriff Dale Lancaster addresses the media during a press conference in 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN.
Maine's Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster addresses the media during a press conference. Image by Ashley L. Conti/Bangor Daily News. United States, 2017.

About a quarter of Somerset County Sheriff's Office discipline records over the last five years do not describe why officers were punished, obscuring the misconduct of those entrusted with maintaining the county's safety. The Bangor Daily News obtained the records last week after Somerset County officials denied their existence last year.

The BDN requested the records, which are public under Maine law, on March 3, 2020, as part of a statewide investigation into misconduct among county police and corrections officers. Fifteen of Maine's 16 counties supplied five years of records in response to a public records request. Somerset County was the only county to not hand over any records. Washington County provided a single discipline for a county employee, but officials said they had none for sheriff's office employees.

Initially, Somerset County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi said there were no records to provide, despite the fact that similarly sized agencies had dozens of records.

Later, DiBlasi said she had asked Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster about discipline records, and he had said he didn't think he had to provide them.

"[Lancaster] told me he was very upset about the request, and he didn't think by law he had to turn it over," DiBlasi said. "I had to say, 'If you have anything, you have to turn it over.'"

In an October interview, more than seven months after the initial request, Lancaster said he had disciplined officers and documented that discipline. But he "didn't really have an answer" as to why those records weren't provided to the BDN, Lancaster said.

In the same interview, Lancaster said he would look into the matter further, but he did not respond to follow-up emails or provide additional information. In November, the BDN filed a duplicate Freedom of Access Act request and threatened legal action if Somerset County did not comply with Maine's disclosure laws.

In December, the BDN published a statewide investigation based on similar records from Maine's other sheriff's offices. It found roughly a third of records documenting serious discipline did not provide meaningful information about the conduct in question, making it difficult to determine if discipline is equitable across offices and violations, and to what degree elected sheriffs are holding their staff accountable. 

The records from Somerset County reveal a similar pattern. Of the 21 records showing a jail or patrol officer received either a suspension, demotion or dismissal, five did not provide any detailed information about the misconduct in question. Another five said officers were being disciplined for refusing a "mandate order" from superiors, but they didn't provide information about the nature of those orders. An additional record documented a written reprimand given to a patrol officer for speeding.

Some of the records weren't formal discipline records but instead were meeting minutes in which county commissioners voted to terminate officers. On Sept. 2, 2015, Somerset County commissioners voted 3-1 to terminate corrections officer Craig Meunier. The records do not say why Meunier was terminated, but separate records from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Maine's police licensing body, show Meunier was stripped of his certification in 2016 for "tampering with a public record." No other details were available.

Other Somerset County records mention internal investigations but provide no details about the conduct under investigation. A June 2018 memo notes that corrections officer Sean Cipriano was "involved in an incident" that resulted in an internal investigation and the jail putting Cipriano on paid administrative leave. The investigation substantiated the unspecified allegations and found Cipriano engaged in so-called conduct unbecoming of an officer and "numerous" policy and procedure violations. But it otherwise gave no information about the incident or the nature of the violations.

Cipriano was subsequently fired.

Many of the records that did provide detailed information showed officers were suspended or fired for violations related to attendance, such as showing up late for shifts or not showing up at all. But some of the records did demonstrate potentially dangerous behavior toward inmates.

Sergeant Dawn Pullen told an inmate to "kill yourself" in front of officers and other inmates, according to a January 2019 record.

"Subsequently, the involved inmate did indeed attempt suicide by hanging, but fortunately staff intervention saved the inmate's life," the record said.

As punishment, Pullen was demoted from sergeant to corrections officer.

In July 2015, an inmate attempted suicide by hanging, according to the records. A subsequent internal investigation found that Gerard Madore, one of the corrections officers on duty at the time, did not log activities in his area and did not conduct security rounds as required. He received a two-week suspension.

Not all problematic interactions with inmates were dangerous. A 2016 record shows that an investigation found corrections officer Debra Anderson began a relationship with a male inmate that included written correspondence and "unlawful physical contact inside the facility." She was fired shortly thereafter.

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