Disappointed by the judicial outcomes of his department’s criminal cases, Rumford Police Chief Tony Milligan turned to social media last month to provide a window into the frustrations he and his officers faced.
Cases were getting dismissed, and questions from residents mounted.
They asked why Milligan’s department wasn’t doing more to stymie increases in crime and the burgeoning effects of the opioid epidemic.
Milligan said Thursday he empathized with the concerns and wanted to improve transparency in his department.
So he began a string of Facebook posts with case-by-case reports of charges that were dismissed or deferred in court, calling attention to a pattern in the judicial system that Milligan said has been frustrating.
As of Friday he’s posted two reports, reviewing 42 charges.
“There was some kind of misconception that, ‘Hey, the cops are letting this guy out,’ or ‘How come they’re letting this guy out on bail and cases are (getting) dismissed,’” Milligan said. “And people … mistakenly thought that this was the doings of the police, and it’s really got nothing to do with the police.”
The same sentiments were on display at a town hall in Mexico last week, when residents of the River Valley region — which includes Rumford and Mexico — gathered to ask pointed questions of their law enforcement leaders and elected officials.
Some residents referenced individuals they saw arrested one day and let out a few days later, despite concerns that the accused could be a threat to them or their family. Others cited open-air drug deals they saw in the parking lots of local businesses.
At the town hall, Milligan and Mexico Police Chief Roy Hodsdon said there have been recent increases in service calls and arrests in their jurisdictions.
Milligan said his department received 6,463 calls in 2022, a 54% increase from over five years.
The Mexico Police Department, had 149 arrests and summonses for all offenses in 2022, compared to 107 the year before. This year the department totaled 135 by the end of July, according to Hodsdon.
Many of those arrests and police call logs used to show up in the local newspaper, along with follow-up stories on more serious cases, but Milligan said a gap formed between the public and his department’s activity.
He began posting the arrest logs in Google documents shared on the department’s Facebook page, and saw posting the case outcomes of dismissals, probation and sentences as the next step.
They span outcomes for minor misdemeanors, like driving with a suspended license, to felony burglary.
“Through the release of activity logs, you know what’s going on on a day-to-day basis, but we’re not telling them the outcome of anything, and that’s what’s been missing,” Milligan said.
Some commenters reacted with outrage to the outcomes. They asked why seemingly serious charges for crimes like drug trafficking or felony fentanyl possessions are resulting in dismissals. Some criticized the local district attorney.
In one exchange, a resident said: “Thank you Rumford, ME Police Department for being open and letting us know these outcomes. I find it very disturbing to see so many dismissals by the courts. It makes you look like you are arresting innocent people.”
The department responded to another comment: “ . . . we do not make the laws, set the penalties, or choose the disposition of the cases. We come in and do everything we can for the community we serve.”
After Milligan’s first post in early August, District Attorney Neil McLean, whose district includes Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties, responded on Facebook and went over the high-level cases to provide greater context on how the outcomes resulted.
McLean, who was sworn in last January, said in his comment he supports Milligan’s department and the effort to provide transparency, but added: “Unfortunately, it is not that simple.”
Some defendants are part of cases across county lines, where one charge brought on by Rumford PD may be dismissed after the accused takes a plea deal for other charges, resulting in years-long prison sentences, according to McLean.
“… (T)his is the hazard of just releasing a disposition of a single case without proper, or full, explanation,” McLean wrote. “You get a still shot of a single case, without the benefit of the full picture of the defendant’s cases in whole.”
As a result, according to McLean, the public may get the impression his office is failing them.
“While we admittedly don’t get things right every time, we do sometimes fall short of people’s expectations, but we are NOT dismissing everything and failing public safety,” McLean wrote.
In an interview with The Maine Monitor, McLean said he understands that like him, Milligan is accountable to the public and their concerns about crime, and McLean is supportive of his department’s position.
What it comes down to, McLean said, is collaborating across jurisdictions to show that his office and law enforcement are striving for accountability, while dealing with a massive case backlog and insufficient resources for the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
McLean said District 3 has the largest backlog in the state with roughly 4,800 pending cases. Most of his prosecutors have around 400 cases each, and are working long hours to keep up with them.
“The real question is, How do we make sure people understand that we in our office, across our three counties, are working extremely hard to get accountability and justice?” McLean said.
At the town hall meeting, McLean encouraged residents to reach out to District 3 staff members for information on cases, then lingered long after the meeting to respond directly to questions.
“There are resources out there that we can help guide them to or provide for them,” McLean said, “and we work with community partners regularly in being able to assist them.”
When asked for comment on the Rumford Police Department Facebook page’s case outcome reports, Samuel Crankshaw, a spokesperson for the ACLU, criticized the inclusion of low-level misdemeanors.
“First and foremost, the police department is using their official platform essentially to shame people for having been charged with doing certain activities while poor,” like driving with a suspended license, Crankshaw said.
“A lot of those charges were Class E misdemeanors, which was the lowest possible charge. Those are all activities that people do when poor and then get tied up in the criminal legal system as a result.”
Additionally, Crankshaw said that in encouraging the district attorney to be tough on crime, the police department is taking approaches that “have been failing for several decades and clogging up our courts, and filling our jails and prisons.”
Making more low-level arrests only adds to that backlog, Crankshaw said.
Milligan said that the case logs are making information available that has previously been distributed elsewhere, and he’s received support and appreciation from residents for the posts, which he will continue to do.
“This is how it’s been done for a long time. It’s just this is the first time we’ve done it through our social media platform,” Milligan said.
He added that he’s tweaked the posts to provide more disclaimers about the snapshot the logs provide, touching on the intricacies explained by McLean, and to remind readers that people are innocent until proven guilty.
“I can clearly see that there’s a huge void in understanding, much less access to information on the public side with respect to how basic criminal justice is conducted in this state,” Milligan said.
“I’m not trying to set the world on fire and I’m certainly not trying to drive a wedge between the police department and the prosecutor’s office or the courts. We’re are all in this together. And when I say we’re all in this together, that means the public, too.”