Maine's 10-year-old right-to-know law will be tested for the first time next week when reporters from every newspaper in the state walk into local police stations and ask for a look at the files.
If they are refused, as the Maine Press Association expects, the papers have pledged to go to court and seek a working definition of the law that gives citizens the right to see most official documents, from arrest records to interagency memos.
The association recently surveyed 79 police departments from Caribou to Mechanic Falls to determine how easy it is to look at official records. Two dozen police chiefs said no one could look at their files without a court order. The rest offered limited access.
The survey results proved what many newspaper editors in the state suspected. Reporters have long relied on what police chose to tell them, instead of written reports. The informal relationship has probably developed because most small town departments keep few formal records, State Attorney General Joseph Brennan explained.
Brennan responded to the newspaper's planned assault on police stations by directing his staff to write press guidelines for police. "Hopefully, our guidelines will be helpful in easing this situation," Brennan said, adding that he is interested in creating some uniformity for police reports.
Gordon Scott, an attorney for the press association, said, "Whether [police] don't know the law or don't care about public access, we don't know." But he said he suspects many police departments violate the public access law.
The state's police have reacted with surprise to the plans of the newspapers. Ivan Labrie, director of Maine Chiefs of Police said, "The comment I've been getting from chiefs is 'how come no one approached us and told us that is was a problem'? The chiefs would have gladly talked to them about it."
Labrie said the newspapers failed to consider federal privacy laws when conducting their survey. "There are federal acts dealing with an individual's right to privacy and it's a tricky problem for the chiefs." He said most police try to cooperate with reports and others seeking information.
"I'm not saying you can't find one that may be a little overprotective," he said. "But I don't know of any."
Most police officials in the state say they aren't sure what may be disclosed as public information. Robert Wagner, director of the state Bureau of Identification, said, "There's a big gray area that has to be defined."
Wagner, who eversees the state's criminal records, added, "We recognize the public's right to know, particularly in regard to arrest records. But there is a big gray area concerning investigative and intelligence reports."
Chester Lunner, managing editor of the Biddeford Journal Tribune, said, "We simply cannot depend on the whim of every individual police officer, chief dispatcher or secretary in the state as our sole source information.
"Too often, that's what's happening today in Maine. If someone, partically anyone, doesn't want the public to know about a police activity, then no one knows. That's frightening. And that's what all the fuss is about."
J. Russell Wiggins, editor of the weekly Ellsworth American, called police response to requests for information "shocking and frightening." He said Maine police "overwhelmingly have said it's not their policy to give out information."
Wiggins, who left the editor's position at The Washington Post to live on the Maine coast, said the press association "selected the arrest record as a suitable test for the law."
Newspapers throughout the nation have encountered trouble at one time or another when seeking official information, he said. "But we have problems here with all kinds of records, not just police."
The newspapers will go to the police Monday asking for arrest records. If denied, written requests for information will be filed with officials. Wiggins said if those requests are denied, individual papers and the press association "are prepared to bring a civil action and let the court clear the issue."