County officials mulling how to move forward with law enforcement task force findings
DOVER-FOXCROFT — A need for more law enforcement officers across the region was a key finding of a recent countywide task force. While the issue has been identified, there are no easy answers to addressing the shortage, according to county officials who discussed the task force report during a May 2 meeting.
The 13-member committee was comprised of town managers, police personnel and citizens and the group met over several months earlier in the year to address law enforcement needs and processes, such as patrol, staff recruitment, coverage, mutual aid, communication, use of vehicles and contracts with towns. A final summary report and recommendations from the task force on how to strengthen police protection offered in the most efficient and affordable manner was presented to the Piscataquis County Commissioners last month.
County Manager Tom Lizotte said the town of Brownville has served as a test case for how changes in police coverage can work. Brownville residents voted to defund their municipal police department, and later formally disbanded it, choosing instead to rely on existing patrols and responses from the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office.
“In my view it seems to be working well,” Lizotte said. “The Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office has picked that up and I haven’t heard a complaint in my office.”
Sheriff John Goggin, who said he opted to not be a part of the task force with his last term as sheriff ending in 2018, said he has spoken with several Brownville residents “and they say they’re happy to have us down there.”
“So with Brownville I’m happy with what has happened,” Goggin added.
He said the community has been gracious to let the sheriff’s department use space in the town office. “They’re very welcoming to us down there and they’ve done everything they said they would to help us,” Goggin said.
The task force wondered if there has been a communications breakdown between the Maine State Police and the county departments, and the group wondered if the various agencies can work together effectively to serve residents.
“Personally, I am against a call-sharing agreement with the state police, we tried it for the three years and it didn’t work out,” Goggin said.
The sheriff said he is not against the Maine State Police having a presence in Piscataquis County. “I am in favor of any officer closest to the complaint answering the complaint,” Goggin said. “I think that makes more sense than anything else.”
He said several members of the Maine State Police live in the county but are assigned elsewhere.
Goggin said a perception of some residents, especially among the older generations, is “this county is a sheriff’s department-oriented county.” He continued, “They knew everybody in the sheriff’s department,” and would see the officer responding to a call again in the future.
Commissioners Chair James White mentioned how the state police use a digital radio system while the sheriff’s office has analog.
“So that is an issue,” Chief Deputy Bob Young said.
The report said that mutual aid between departments is still provided in emergency situations but is not as consistent as it should be.
Young said the discussions earlier in the year have already led to new arrangements. “We’ve actually put in place a new agreement with Milo,” as the Milo Police Department will respond to calls in neighboring Brownville when requested by the sheriff’s office.
“The same thing is in Greenville,” Young said. “And likewise we’re certainly glad to help them in any way we can. That’s where we’re heading toward and I think it’s going to work well.”
Goggin said there is a perception among some residents that the county is looking to take over municipal police departments. While he said this is not true, “I think that’s another element at play here and I think we’re going to have to deal with it one way or another.”
Corina Tibbetts of the district attorney’s office, who served on the task force, said officers have other duties consuming their time such as appearing in court, paperwork, following up on calls and more.
“What one officer used to do now takes one and a half officers,” Young said, saying an OUI case at one point could be handled in two hours but now the timeframe is six to eight hours.
“When they get to the point where they’re asking for more officers, I hope they get the support,” Tibbetts said.
“We need to retain what we have here and attract more people,” Goggin said about addressing the manpower shortage. “We need to stop that outflow and if it takes money to do that we then we need to do that.”
“None of this is surprising,” Lizotte said. “The workforce shortage in law enforcement is national in scope.”
Various reasons listed in the report include stagnant pay, poor work/life balance, high job risk, the changing nature of police work and negative public perceptions about police use of force. Between the four Piscataquis County agencies there are 13.5 full-time officers for a county population of just under 17,000 — below the generally accepted ratio of one officer per 1,000 citizens.
The report states elected officials need to develop a coordinated response to the emerging crisis. Lizotte suggested the next step could be for county officials to meet with the region’s Legislative delegation to discuss the task force findings further and see what may be done.
Another idea would be for representatives of the county to meet with the selectboards of Dover-Foxcroft, Greenville and Milo to see how these communities with municipal police departments and the county can move forward together.
Aspects of the response identified in the task force report may include increasing pay and benefits to attract qualified officers, a stronger support system (including employment assistance programs) to help retain officers, more family-friendly work schedules and a law enforcement recruiting strategy promoting the area’s small-town quality of life and sense of community. Recruitment should start with a “grow your own” initiative by reaching out to high school students to promote law enforcement as a rewarding future career.