2018-05-03 / Editorial

The right to know trumps all feelings

The Right Side
by Mike Coleman

Last Saturday, April 28, John Williams, the suspected murderer of Somerset County Sheriff Deputy Cpl. Eugene Cole was pulled out of hiding and placed into custody. Williams had been the target of an intense nationwide manhunt for several days prior to his capture. The manhunt included the Maine State Police, the Maine Warden Service, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and local police agencies. We can all breathe easier now that Williams is in custody. He is being held at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

In 2006 Williams had been convicted of felony theft and as a result was prohibited under federal law from purchasing, owning or possessing firearms. On March 22, 2018 he was arrested in Haverhill, Massachusetts by state police and charged with several firearm possession charges. His bail was originally set at $10,000 cash but was later reduced to $5,000. He made bail and returned to Maine. He was due to appear in a Massachusetts courtroom on the day he allegedly murdered Cpl. Cole.

By now most of us have seen the picture of Williams with his head held back by a law enforcement officer because he refused to lift his head for an identification picture. At the time of Williams’ capture an intense manhunt was centered in Norridgewock and Fairfield in central Maine. It was so intense that normal law enforcement radio traffic in the area was restricted to communications regarding this manhunt. The arrest team needed to make sure they had the right person. They needed a picture of the face of the man they just captured so that the Unified Command could confirm his identity. Many people have criticized the publication of this picture as inhumane or that it resembled a trophy picture.

The explanation given by the police for this picture appears reasonable and it was necessary to quickly identify the subject as their suspect so that the multiple agencies searching for the suspect could stand down as soon as he was in custody. That the subject refused to cooperate should not surprise any of us.

Any document or image created by any public employee or public official is subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Any member of the public can request access to any such document to either view or copy it. There are some exceptions to the act that may allow or mandate a government agency keep some information private. In my view none of them apply. There is a justification for keeping some information confidential at least temporarily if disclosure could compromise an ongoing investigation by our police agencies, but this image does not fall into that narrow category.

Sooner or later this photograph was going to be published. Right or wrong, the public has the right to know. On this point Maine law is very clear. Releasing this photo without a Freedom of Access Act request shows our government to be open and transparent in this instance. It would have been illegal for the police to withhold this picture from publication. Our police agencies in Maine do their jobs under tremendous pressure and intense public scrutiny. They did a fantastic job hunting down Cpl. Cole’s alleged murderer and bringing him in unharmed. They employed appropriate force in effecting the arrest and removed what appears to be a dangerous criminal from our midst. They and all law enforcement officers who have dedicated their lives to serving their communities deserve our thanks and our support. President Reagan said, “Trust but verify.” Maine’s Freedom of Access Act gives us the ability to verify.

Mike Coleman is a former town councilor in Old Orchard Beach and was a member of the Maine Republican State Committee from 2010 through 2017 where he served as budget chairman under three separate state chairmen. He represented Maine at the Republican National Convention as an alternate in 2012. He recently left the Republican Party and became an Independent.

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