Privacy Interests in Sexual Assault Case Shouldn’t Trump Public’s Right to Know

By Michael Shepherd

shepherdFor months, the Kennebec Journal received tips about a police officer in Hallowell, Maine, alleging she was sexually assaulted by the chief of her department. The Maine State Police, according to the tips, began a criminal investigation last year into the officer’s allegation.

I confirmed those tips and wrote a story last month in which the state police acknowledged the investigation, but wouldn’t release many more details. The accused police chief and the officer, through their attorneys, admitted a sexual relationship prior to the June 2013 incident. The chief said the incident in question was a consensual encounter. State police conducted an investigation, closed the case, and took no further action. The officer maintained that she was too intoxicated to consent to sex, adding that she never recanted her claim and wasn’t informed when state police closed the case last October without filing charges against the chief.

That’s about all we know.

After repeated public record requests by the Kennebec Journal, the state police still won’t turn over police reports and other accounts of the case, saying their release would cause an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Even the reason the case was closed, state officials said, is confidential.

The Kennebec Journal sued the state for the reports on June 13, arguing that Maine’s Freedom of Access Act intended to strike a balance between the privacy of suspects, witnesses and investigators, and the public’s right to know about criminal investigations and the conduct of public officials. Too much weight, the newspaper is arguing, has been given to the privacy interests in this case. More consideration needs to be given to the public’s right to know, especially when a powerful public official whose job is to enforce the law is now accused of a crime against a person in his chain of command.

Meanwhile, Hallowell officials have allowed the chief and officer to work together since the allegation. She was promoted to full-time status in October, just before the state police investigation closed. No disciplinary action has yet been taken by the chief’s supervisor, Hallowell’s city manager, nor was an internal city investigation conducted.

In May, city councilors were told for the first time that the criminal investigation had occurred. The city manager hasn’t seen state police reports about the case, nor have councilors. The chief has also accused the officer of lying during the investigation, a charge her attorney denied.

Without the public records and without knowing the evidence presumably considered by police, it’s become a he-said, she-said case. Rightly or wrongly, that could harm public confidence in the police department where the accuser and the accused work together today. That’s why it’s imperative that the Kennebec Journal gets these documents. Our appeal for the state records is pending in Kennebec County Superior Court.

The most basic function of the press is to guarantee free, open debate on issues of the day. Without the state police accounts of the investigation into the chief’s behavior, that conversation about an issue of public concern will be severely limited, not only around central Maine’s kitchen tables, but also in the halls of city government.

Michael Shepherd is a reporter for the Kennebec Journal. He can be emailed at mshepherd@mainetoday.com.

2 comments on “Privacy Interests in Sexual Assault Case Shouldn’t Trump Public’s Right to Know

  1. Angela Mogin

    Obviously, the city councilors and the city manager should be informed about the details of the case but given the unsubstantiated nature of the claims, until there is some further information provided to the requisite authorities, there is no pressing need for the details of the case to be made public. One step at a time.

  2. Julie Lane

    My initial response in reading the headline was that the woman’s privacy trumps all. But that turned around fast as soon as I read the first Graf.
    In a small town – and I cover a small town – it’s impossible to protect the woman’s identity, but the public has a right to know this story !
    And a police investigation exonerating the chief is insufficient.
    This must be investigated by an uninvolved third party.
    Congratulations for pressing this story forward.

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