Maine Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin not only spread radical far-right views on social media, he applied them to his law enforcement work, according to attorneys and activists. Gauvin ginned up a “terrorism” threat in 2018 to discourage a Women’s March protest against Donald Trump, and his officers expressed support for anti-mask activists who vandalized the governor’s house with potentially contaminated PPE last December.
Now state lawmakers, many alarmed by Gauvin’s failure — or refusal — to enforce the COVID-19 mask mandate, are moving to take control of the police force he formerly led.
Gauvin was removed from duty last month after Mainer exposed Facebook posts in which he questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election and the efficacy and intent of public health measures imposed by Gov. Janet Mills to slow the spread of the pandemic. He also expressed sympathy with the violent views of an extremist ex-cop who called for Black Lives Matter protesters to be shot and napalmed last summer.
Gauvin deleted his Facebook account within hours of receiving Mainer’s request for comment about his posts. He said he also deleted his account on Parler, the now-defunct social media platform notorious for fostering racist far-right hate and violence.
The disgraced chief issued a public apology for his online comments, in which he claimed to “take seriously my duty to uphold our laws, to do so in a fair and impartial way, and to protect the Capitol and our people.” Since then, numerous accounts have surfaced that call every clause in that quote into question.
According to organizers of the January 2018 Women’s March and rally at the State House in Augusta, Gauvin tried to require the activists to buy a multi-million-dollar insurance policy in order to be granted a permit for the event. He claimed that level of liability coverage was necessary due to the potential for terrorist violence at the protest. Gauvin dropped the demand when its legality was challenged by an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
In a letter sent last month to Maine Public Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck, whose department oversees the Bureau of Capitol Police, civil-rights attorney Kim Matthews, an organizer of the 2018 Women’s March, noted that Gauvin “showed a marked lack of courtesy in assisting me with this [permitting] process. He informed me that I would need to purchase an insurance policy in the amount of $2,000,000 [worth of liability coverage] due to a potential threat of ‘terrorism.’”
Informed that the event’s main sponsor, March Forth, had held several peaceful rallies in Portland the previous year, Gauvin “lowered the amount of insurance he would require to $1,000,000,” Matthews wrote. After ACLU of Maine attorney Zach Heiden called Gauvin on the organizers’ behalf, the chief agreed to “waive the requirement for insurance,” but only for what he called “‘this first march,’” Matthews wrote.
Gauvin’s demand was “illegal,” “prohibitive” and “arbitrary,” said Jennifer Jones, a co-organizer of the event, which brought together about 5,000 peaceful demonstrators. Jones said the insurance coverage would have cost the grassroots group over $1,000, a sum they could not have raised.
Gauvin, an ardent Trump supporter on Facebook, “put in requirements that were illegal and unconditional because it had to do with politics,” Matthews told Maine TV station WMTW last month. Both Matthews and Jones suspect other groups promoting political ideas Gauvin disagrees with cancelled plans for events at the State House when confronted with the chief’s baseless demands for insurance coverage.
Contrast that with the treatment Gauvin’s force gave a group of anti-mask protesters whose dangerously irrational views the chief personally shares.
On Dec. 18, about 20 members of two groups, Mainers Against Mask Mandates and Beacon for Sovereignty, held a “mask ceremony” outside Mills’ residence, the Blaine House, during which they hung masks from lighted trees and other holiday decorations on the property.
Organizer Sam Hill wrote on Facebook that Capitol Police initially told him participants would need to maintain 14 feet of social distance in order to get a permit for the event. Mills “has eliminated every means of peaceful protest available to us,” Hill wrote in a Dec. 19 Facebook post. “We are DONE asking for permits. … ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.”
Video footage of the gathering shows participants made no attempt to maintain any social distance, and there was no intervention by Capitol cops to compel them to do so. To the contrary, Gauvin’s force openly supported the protesters’ actions, according to Hill.
“Yesterday, Capital [sic] Police REAFFIRMED their disdain for this governor by not intervening in our MASK CEREMONY,” Hill wrote. “In fact, their humorous accolades and chuckles as they were FORCED to clean it up after only solidified our resolve to continue exhausting any and all peaceful remedies to the VIRUS in the Blaine House.”
Last fall, WMTW reported that Mainers Against Mask Mandates had also partnered with members of the American Patriot Council, “a conservative group which has called for the arrest of six governors, including Mills, placing them on a so-called ‘criminal watch list.’”
Hill is a promoter of the perverse QAnon conspiracy theory, which also calls for the mass arrest of elected officials. On Facebook, Gauvin expressed support for a similar round-up of politicians and their conviction on “RICO” (racketeering) charges for allowing Black Lives Matter protests to take place last year.
The Capitol Police referred our questions about Gauvin’s handling of these protests to Sauschuck, who did not respond. Sauschuck and Gauvin previously served together in the Portland Police Department.
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, who serves as Assistant Majority Leader, recently called for the Capitol Police to be removed from Sauschuck’s oversight and managed instead by the state lawmakers the force is supposed to protect. Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that Gauvin’s force has been lax or unwilling to enforce the mask mandate inside government buildings.
“The Legislature should have a say in its own security and should be a partner in directing our own safety as well as the safety of those whom we work with and members of the public as they engage in the legislative process,” Talbot Ross said during a meeting of the Legislative Council late last month, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“Consider the current face-covering policy, decided by lawmakers on this panel and transmitted to our Capitol Police for enforcement,” she continued. “It makes a great deal of sense that we would have some say overseeing the force that carries out these decisions.”
The bipartisan Council unanimously voted to accept Talbot Ross’ bill for consideration during this year’s legislative session, despite the fact it was submitted after the deadline.