McCamish Rectifies Officer’s Error

By Michael Hawkins

Lt. J. Christopher Read has been doing his job for close to 20 years. He knows how the Augusta Police Department works. In fact, he knows how the law works better than most. At least, he knows it better than I do. He told me so.

Let me bring everything up to date.

It began with a parking ticket in high school from Officer Richard Dubois. I was illegally parked, but Officer Dubois made the citation out incorrectly. I unofficially contested the ticket. Stubbornness ensued.

Officer Dubois wouldn’t take the ticket back despite the clarity of his error. (He wrote that I was parked on the sidewalk. I was actually on the yellow diagonal lines seen at the end of parking spaces. These lines cannot be placed on the sidewalk, nor are they ever put there.) I was guilty of a $15 crime and would have simply paid the fine had Dubois not made a silly mistake. But if anything, the law is full of technicalities. I saw no reason to not use that to my advantage.

Long story short, I went to great lengths to definitively prove the lack of validity to the ticket (and absolutely did so), but ended up paying it anyway. Okay, whatever. It’s $15.

But then came a great opportunity.

For a journalism course I had to use the Maine Freedom of Information Access Act (FOIA) to obtain some sort of information from a government entity. Inspired by the Boston Globe’s use of the Massachusetts version of the act to uncover the disciplinary record of a State Trooper, I requested the same record for Officer Dubois’.

Okay, I admit it. His stubbornness got to me. Maybe I’m arrogant. Maybe I’m cocky. I’ll accept those descriptions as long as I can still say I was right about that little ticket. I’ll sacrifice image for principle any day.

But whatever the reason for my actions, I requested Officer Dubois’ record. And I had a right to it. The Maine FOIA says so: “… if disciplinary action is taken, the final written decision relating to that action is no longer confidential…”

The language is clear. It’s unambiguous. The disciplinary records of municipal, county, and state employees are not confidential.

Lt. Read was confused on the issue.
I approached the Lt. on a Monday with my request. He informed me that personnel records are confidential. For the most part, yes, they certainly are. I know because the act states this immediately before naming a particular exception.

But I hadn’t read the Maine FOIA carefully at this point. I was turned away, no records in hand. I soon began my research.

Upon discovering that Lt. Read had made an error, I returned two days later. I gave the man the benefit of the doubt. Hell, I could see myself making a mistake like that.

“I think there may have been a misunderstanding. I’m looking for Officer Dubois’ disciplinary record, not his entire personnel record.”

Lt. Read held his ground. It was here that I read him, verbatim, what the law actually states. Remember, the language is abundantly clear.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years; I know how it works…That’s your interpretation.”

I persisted, explaining in the simplest terms possible why he was wrong. It was to no avail.

Realizing the brick wall in front of me, I decided to finish up by reminding Lt. Read that he needs to give me a written response explaining his denial of my request within 5 business days. (I’ve heard it may be 10 business days, though I’ve only read “5”. Regardless, a response is required.)

Looking me dead in the eye, no sign of a smirk, no twitch of laughter, he delivers his line.

“I’m not going to do that.”

I’m dumbfounded. I gave this man the benefit of the doubt. I read him the act. Twice. I interpreted it for him clearly. Yet here I was.

I reminded Augusta’s finest of the $500 fine that comes with a violation of this law. He was wasn’t fazed.

Going a step further with the overly-nice guy routine, I even offered Lt. Read a copy of my written request. I figured he may realize he’s wrong somewhere in the next few days. He’d need my contact information.

He refused it.

It was at this point in my mind that I questioned the honesty of the officer. I believe him when he says he’s been in law enforcement for 20 years. But I draw the line when he claims he knows how this law works. He had no idea that the disciplinary records were not confidential. He had no idea he was required to give me a written response. He didn’t seem to realize there was a fine associated with his bungling of the situation. “Liar” may be a strong word here, but it can’t be too far off the mark.

I let Lt. Read know I was going to see City Manager William Bridgeo with an identical letter. He had every chance to correct himself.

Bridgeo was in a meeting, but a clerk took down my whole story alongside copies of my letter and a printout of the relevant section of the law. She said the manager would get back to me.

And get back to me he did.

Within a couple days, I received a letter from Bridgeo. Perhaps the nicest man in Augusta, he praised my efforts (yay me!) while also informing me that Officer Dubois had no disciplinary record in the past two years (records are not kept longer than that, with exception for repeat offenses).

In other words, the records are public information. Great. Tickets made in error aside, Officer Dubois seems to be on the up-and-up. This is far more satisfying than finding an officer riddled with reprimands and suspensions.

But the story doesn’t end there.

A few days later I received another letter. This one was from Police Chief Wayne McCamish.

“I must apologize that as you are aware, should there be a final written decision relating to a disciplinary action taken against an employee, that information is not confidential and you would have a right to access of that information.”

He goes on to explain that as a result of Lt. Read’s handling of the situation, “[a]ll Police Supervisors are to review our Standard Operating Procedure, Public Access to Records, to ensure that a request for information is handled properly…I am truly sorry for the inconvenience you have experienced.”

Twenty years is a long time, but it doesn’t hold up against the law. But maybe that’s just my interpretation.

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