‘We need a big reform package, an umbrella’

Three Midcoast legislators commit to law enforcement system reform in Maine

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 3:15pm

CAMDEN — Gathering for an impromptu meeting June 10 to talk about law enforcement reforms in light of ongoing global protests against racism and police brutality, three area legislators emphasized their commitment to systemic change in Maine.

All three are incumbents, and up for reelection in November, meaning they may have no chance of participating in committee work or pushing bills forward; nonetheless, they have strong convictions on what they want to happen.

“We need a big reform package, an umbrella,” said Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship.

He, along with Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, and Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, spent an hour discussing the sweep of protests, as well as their home state of Maine.

It is not a new conversation for Evangelos, who introduced a bill in 2019, An act to Establish an Independent Board to Review Law Enforcement Officer-involved Death. That bill was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills last spring.

With three energetic personalities in one room, their voices rising and falling, the legislators often talked at the same time as they supported each other or debated a point. And they did not mince words.

Change must start in Augusta, they agreed, at the Legislature, with the governor and with the Office of Maine’s Attorney General.

Additionally, law enforcement training curriculum at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, in Vassalboro, must be scrutinized. And at the local level, taxpayers and their own police officers must talk about what the community wants in a taxpayer funded police force. 

“Whether it is me, or whoever, the day after we are elected, there is going to be a collaborative group getting together and we are going to work together,” said Evangelos.

“Agreed,” said Miramant and Doudera, simultaneously.

 “This is a statewide problem,” Evangelos said. 

He was particularly impassioned, June 10 being the day prior to his Gregori Jackson press briefing in Augusta.

Evangelos, along with Midcoast District Attorney Natasha Irving, and the parents of Gregori Jackson, had then publicly announced that the effort was growing to reopen a 2007 police shooting case that involved the death of Jackson.

Jackson died in a police shooting, in an altercation in the woods between him and then Waldoboro Reserve Office Zachary Curtis. Curtis had pulled over a car with three young men in it, alleging the driver had been driving erratically.  (Read Midcoast Legislator, District Attorney pursue reopening 13-year-old police shooting case).

The case is one reason that Evangelos wants to effect systemic reforms in Maine law enforcement. 

“There is no accountability in Maine with the police,” he said. “When there is misconduct, there is no accountability. We have something called qualified immunity, which allows law enforcement to have a separate set of laws that the rest of us aren’t entitled to.” (See sidebar)

Envangelos said he held no attitude against police.

“My father was 50 years in law enforcement,” he said. “A state cop for 23 years and then a chief of police for two major universities. He did it for 50 years in the 1960s.  I called him up the day after Gregori Jackson [died]. He was 89. He said, ‘I would have let him run in the woods. Running into the woods and having had a couple of beers because he was on probation isn’t a capital offense.’”

The three legislators have been watching other states implement immediate reforms in the wake of protests, gauging the applicability of similar changes in Maine. And while some bills passed last year (see sidebar), there is more to do, they agreed.

“We highly respect the law enforcement profession, and the 90-something percent of the good cops have our admiration and support,” said Evangelos. “But when bad cops commit crimes and engage in misconduct and the system covers up for them, that undermines the good cops.”

Miramant agreed, but tempered Evangelos.

“I do respect the 90 percent who are trying to, or the 50 percent,” he said.  “I respect those officers who are trying to do the right thing.”

Doudera said: “Patterns and practices of misconduct need to be investigated and our statutes around excessive uses of force need to be examined and amended where necessary. I agree that we have to end qualified immunity protection for law enforcement officers.  Bad actors in policing should be held accountable and receive no greater due process than civilians suspected and accused of criminal acts.”

What are the problems in Maine?

Evangelos’ chief concerns include licensing, accountability, transparency, and immunity.

With incidents involving law enforcement, the lead police agency, the Attorney General’s Office, is investigating itself. That is, he said, “a massive conflict of interest.”

“Why, when there is police misconduct, there is a secret proceeding,” asked Evangelos. “In the history of our state, not one police officer has ever been held accountable. Why are they entitled to a secret proceeding when you have to go to court in public when you get nabbed?”

The three legislators discussed the Jackson case, as well as a February police shooting of a man in Minot, and calls for the release of body camera recordings. (Read Maine lawmaker calls for immediate release of video of deadly police shooting in Minot)

That shielding of law enforcement from public scrutiny is, “what is collapsing across the country,” Evangelos said. “We’re not going back, and even if the Legislature doesn’t fix it, the people are going to. This is a movement, now.”

“This state does nothing about police brutality,” said Miramant.

“It’s the same culture that exists in the other 49 states,” said Evangelos. “Qualified immunity.”

“But even the citizenry doesn’t get worked up and demand answers,” said Miramant.

“Well, they are now,” said Evangelos.

“The tide is turning,” said Doudera. “This is a changing point.”

“Ninety percent of the cops are good people,” said Evangelos. “They are good cops and they are out there doing a difficult job. But this lack of accountability and this lack of transparency that allows them to continue to get away with this destroys the good cops. It destroys the perception in the citizenry that we can trust them.”

Doudera, a real estate agent, spoke of the licensing expectations of her profession.

“If you do one little thing, you get fined, and you get your license yanked,” she said.

On the contrary, said Evangelos, “It’s almost impossible to adjudicate a complaint in Maine against a police officer and get anywhere. You become the problem by complaining.”

Bills on the horizon

If Miramant is reelected, he intends to introduce a bill requiring the licensing of law enforcement officials. The oversight would be a licensing board, composed of citizens and officials, similar to other professional bodies that require licensing in order to work.

On the board would be, “only two cops,” he said. “The others are part of the community.”

As for police unions, they are a force with which to reckon, said Evangelos.

“There is no union protection for airline pilots who cannot fly airplanes,” said Miramant, himself a commercial pilot. “You have a union, you negotiate, you get great pay, you go in for your check ride and training. If I fail, they send the union rep, who watches to make sure I am being tested fairly. If I need a review by my union or anything else, great. We [the pilots’ union] does not protect people who are incompetent or killers who are cruel. They are not there to protect that. They are protecting against unfairness in the job and we have to start reinforcing that so that their [Maine law enforcement] leadership and people know that there’s no union here to protect from being cruel and malicious.”

Maine’s Legislature does not convene until 2021, unless it is called back for emergency sessions. Miramant said that since the pandemic shuttered Augusta, the focus on legislators has been helping constituents navigate the state and federal assistance programs.

“When we adjourned the Legislature, we became social workers, handling 50-60 phone calls a day, trying to get state services to them,” he said.

Miramant said he told himself he would not say a word about a campaign, “until we start to come out of this, which is just now.”

“We have to be reelected to do this [law enforcement systemic reform], and we’re the team to do it,” he said.

“Cities and states are saying it’s over, no more,” said Evangelos. “No more immunity and secret proceedings.”

As for defunding police departments, they were clear about the need for law enforcement.

“This reform, is going to take different shapes all over the country,” Evangelos said.

To Miramant, the term defund means, “to take money away from the militarization of the police forces and distribute to social service agencies, where it might do good, keep people out of jail, get them healthy.”

“And,” added Evangelos, “community policing.”

Doudera said law enforcement is vital, especially in situations involving domestic violence.

She cited the piling of responsibilities onto law enforcement for handling cases when the problems are caused more by mental health issues and less by criminal behavior. As well, police in Maine are also responsible for finding temporary housing for the homeless, helping with drug addiction rehabilitation, and sometimes even rendering social and psychological counseling.

“But this militarization has to go,” repeated Evangelos.

He pointed at the speed to which some states were moving in addressing the demands articulated during protests.

“We all have to examine ourselves,” said Doudera.

Other states, their governors, “they are just doing it,” said Evangelos. 

In Maine, he said, there are “institutional biases and conflicts of interest that we already have as a failed model.”

He noted the public statement of Rockland Police Chief Chris Young concerning the Rockland protest, and the act of taking a knee at the protest, along with Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll.

“Those are the kind of police offices we need,” said Evangelos. “They get it.”

Then he turned to this reporter.

“I want you to tell the people,” Evangelos said, “that we hear their voices and we are going to reform this. If the Legislature and state government doesn’t allow us to reform it, the people on the streets are going to do it. It is going to happen.”

Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657