Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, U-Friendship, speaks during an April 29 lawmaker forum on police oversight.
Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, U-Friendship, speaks during an April 29 lawmaker forum on police oversight.

While some other states are seizing the cultural moment to make police departments more transparent and accountable, three Maine legislators who have sponsored police oversight bills say our state is resisting needed changes.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford County, speaking at a law enforcement oversight forum hosted by the Bangor Daily News on April 29, described her frustration when the Maine Sheriff’s Association recently withdrew its support for a bill she sponsored in response to a sheriff whose abuse of his subordinates and his authority was well documented. The bill, LD 375, would give county commissioners a mechanism to remove a sheriff for improper, unethical or criminal behavior. Keim introduced it on the heels of the resignation of Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, who sexually harassed his subordinates for years and then remained sheriff while he was under investigation because there was no mechanism to remove him.

The original bill required a court to weigh in, but when Keim revised it to give that authority to the governor, the sheriff’s association argued the power could be abused for political reasons.

“They just showed up and said, Nope, no, that doesn’t work for us,” Keim said. “Even though I reached out many times and said, Well, let’s find something that does work for you. So that’s not the right message they should be giving.”

For many of Keim’s fellow legislators, losing the support of the sheriffs was a dealbreaker. The committee voted 10-2 against recommending the bill to pass.

“I think for lawmakers, they have a difficult time separating this bill from somehow being a censure on the men that are in office right now,” Keim said. “… I think that it is short-sighted, because they should recognize the national moment that we’re in and they should come to the table.”

Reps. Jeffrey Evangelos, U-Friendship, and Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, similarly described the current moment, when the national spotlight is on police misconduct, as an opportunity to enact changes that are long overdue. Warren’s bill, LD 1278, would end the controversial Maine Information and Analysis Center Program, a secretive intelligence gathering and analysis operation known as the “Fusion Center.”

“[The bill] was referred to recently as part of the defund the police movement,” Warren said. “I had my first bill about MIAC in 2015. So the two things are not connected. But how it’s changed is that people are actually paying attention.”

Evangelos said his bill, LD 214, which would remove the qualified immunity defense, which has historically protected police from civil lawsuits, wasn’t inspired by a national movement but by the 2007 shooting of Gregori Jackson by a Waldoboro Police officer: “Five bullets in the back; he was unarmed.” At the time, the Attorney General’s Office found the shooting to be justified, as it has in every police shooting investigation on record. Evangelos was not a legislator at the time. “Friends of mine, at the state and local level in law enforcement said, No, everything’s fine. And I said, Geez, I don’t think this one’s fine.”

Two years ago, a team including Evangelos and Warren convinced the attorney general to reopen the the case, though Evangelos noted nothing has happened since.

Evangelos said he’s been aware of police abuse of power since the 1960s but had trouble getting anyone to take it seriously. “But for the people with their cell phones and their cameras, we’d probably still be in a really bad place,” he said.

But with qualified immunity in place, even pictures and video aren’t enough. Four states and New York City recently passed laws seeking to end the standard, which stems from a 1967 ruling against clergy members who were arrested for protesting to integrate a Jackson, Mississippi, bus station. Evangelos acknowledged that changes are sometimes incremental, but he argued for trying to seize the moment.

“What happened from Reconstruction to 1964 was that we were working incrementally,” he said. “And then Dr. King came along and wrote a book called ‘Why We Can’t Wait.’ And in 1965, it wasn’t incremental anymore. We got the Voting Rights Act, and everything just exploded in one progressive moment. And I think we’re there again. … This is an opportunity, a chance to change things. And if we squander it, it’s shame on us.”

Watch a video of the lawmaker forum here.