Hazing News

Who busts law enforcement when officers haze? In Maine Knox County, that is the question

Knox County sheriff: Do I run my department?
BY WALTER GRIFFIN Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 01/16/2009

from the Kennebec. ME from the Morning Sentinel

ROCKLAND — Claiming county commissioners have attempted to usurp her authority to run her department, Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison has filed a lawsuit aimed at clarifying just who is in charge.

Dennison and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association filed the suit in Lincoln County Superior Court last week.

The lawsuit, filed by association attorney Jonathan R. Berry, of Portland, asks the court to determine whether Dennison or the commissioners have oversight over her department.

The commissioners claim the county charter gives them authority through their agent, the county administrator. That includes day-to-day patrol assignments, the conduct of internal investigations and the appointment of deputies.

The commissioners voted last month to assume control of the department when Dennison rebuffed their attempts to discern how she intended to discipline deputies involved in a hazing incident.

The hazing incident involved the use of a stun gun on an off-duty deputy during his bachelor party in 2007. Although she initially withheld the results of her investigation and the subsequent discipline of the six deputies involved, Dennison eventually gave County Administrator Andrew Hart the results of her investigation.

Four of the deputies involved in the stun-gun incident received written letters of reprimand, and one received an oral reprimand.

Action against another deputy is pending arbitration.

The issue of whether Hart or Dennison should mete out discipline to Sheriffís Department employees was raised during the ongoing contract negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing county employees. The contract expired last month.

Berry said Knox is one of a handful of Maine counties that has adopted a county charter. He said the state law establishing the charter authority specifically omitted giving an administrator authority over the sheriff, district attorney or judge of probate.

“The law could not be more explicit in saying the county commissioners cannot issue orders to a deputy, either on duty or off duty” Berry said Wednesday. “The sheriff is a constitutional office. They are specifically referred to in the state constitution; the county commissioners are not. [The commissioners] were established by the Legislature. Under the constitution, the sheriff reports to the governor.”

County Attorney Peter T. Marchesi said Thursday the issue was ìdistorted and blown well out of proportion.î Marchesi said the commissioners want nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the department, but simply want to follow the tenets of the charter, which require that the county administrator handle all personnel matters.

Marchesi said the union contract contained ìambiguitiesî that needed to be eliminated. He said the commissioners were attempting to deal with a ìdiscreet area of county governmentî dealing with allegations of misconduct and the imposition of discipline on county employees.

“The simple fact of the matter is that neither the commissioners nor the administrator have any intent or want to have any involvement in the department,” he said.

Berry said the sheriff and the sheriffsí association filed suit to determine whether state laws authorizing county charters also permit the reorganization of county law enforcement administration. He said that while the commissioners have control over the sheriffís budget, the sheriff has control over her department, including all decisions effecting its operations.

We acknowledge their power to do what they need to do,î Berry said of the commissioners. ìWeíre asking the court to rule that we can do our job and make sure that the men and women who serve the public report to one master, if you will.”

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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