Maine’s rural counties scramble to fill gaps in police patrols
By Joyce Kryszak, The Maine Monitor
A late summer breeze whispered through the soaring pines surrounding Andy Foss’ home on the shore of Gardner Lake in Washington County, where he sits reflecting on his more than a quarter-century of public service as a law enforcement officer.
The former Maine State Police trooper retired earlier this year to focus on his cancer recovery. Foss said he’d rather be back on patrol but knows his health would suffer.
“Oh, I miss it, I do,” Foss said from the home where he and his wife Jane raised two children. “But working the road in law enforcement is a lot of stress. I was covering probably like 23 or 25 towns myself, answering anywhere from 850 to 1,000 calls a year. It’s just nuts when you think about it.”
The Maine State Police agrees. Faced with diminishing numbers from retirements and recruiting challenges, the state police decided that with 52 vacancies there were too few officers to provide dedicated patrols in the state’s expansive rural counties such as Washington — a county the size of Delaware — so they gradually began trimming or cutting rural patrols completely.
But some rural counties have decided to push back, demanding restoration of trooper patrols or more funding to offset the losses. Rather than waiting to be picked off one by one as contracts with the state police expire, rural county sheriffs, commissioners and the organizations that represent them are banding together to make sure their voices are heard at the state level.
Some legislators have taken the fight to the State House, with two bills already introduced and at least one more on the way.
Over the past few years, Washington County and some other rural counties had reluctantly agreed when the state police presented them with the drastically pared down “resource sharing agreements” that mapped out what the state would provide. But Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton balked at a plan that would have left troopers covering only two of his county’s six rural zones, instead of half as they are now.
Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, and Rep. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, each submitted bills seeking funding for more deputies. Guerin’s bill was approved but amended without funding.
“My bill ended up being a broader discussion of the state police role and the different county sheriffs’ roles, and how that’s going to play out,” Guerin said. “It really did open the conversation.”
The new law, LD 756, approved on July 26, limits changes to the resource coordination agreement between the state police and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, keeping the current contract terms in place through 2024.
It also requires the state police to report to the joint standing committees of the Legislature “having jurisdiction over criminal justice matters, transportation matters and appropriations and financial affairs regarding resource coordination agreements between the Bureau of State Police and all county sheriffs’ departments …”
Mary-Anne LaMarre, the Maine Sheriffs’ Association executive director, said her organization welcomes the Legislature’s help.
“In some counties, there is an issue with adequate resources to meet the demands of patrol coverage,” LaMarre said. “The Maine Sheriffs’ Association is going to be working closely with the legislature and other partners to secure adequate funding, outside of property tax, to meet our standards.”
The state police began restructuring a few years ago, beefing up its specialty units and reducing or eliminating routine rural patrols, as it did in Washington County. The county still receives state police specialty team services (as all counties do), troopers agreed to answer half of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services calls, and they respond to all fatal crashes. But designated patrols in Washington county and other rural counties are gone.
The loss of designated patrols left rural counties reeling from the sudden gaps in coverage, the cost of hiring more deputies and the prospect of higher taxes to pay for local law enforcement.
In Penobscot County, officials said the price for six more deputies would be roughly $1 million over two years. Washington County commissioners already approved $140,000 for an immediate hire of an additional deputy. But officials said at least four more are needed and will likely be added in the next county budget.
Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, is encouraged by the prospect of a more cooperative dialogue with the state police, but Washington County can’t afford to wait and see how the talks pan out. She plans to submit a bill before the Sept. 29 deadline for next spring’s session to seek more emergency funding from the legislature.
“I have to be a little selfish, I’m going in just for Washington County,” Moore said. “These bills are supposed to be on an emergency basis, so I’m going to have to justify it to the Legislative Council and hope they’ll let it go forward.”
It might be wise that the senator isn’t waiting for a broader, statewide solution. The state police objected when Guerin and Perry asked the Legislature for funding, even though they were not seeking the money to come from state police funds. At least for now, the state police seems to be doubling down on its previous positions.
“The state police cannot comment on pending legislation that we have not reviewed,” said Maj. Lucas Hare, head of its operations division. “With that said, any proposed legislation that seeks to defund the state police to fund other law enforcement agencies would be detrimental to public safety. Our resources benefit the entire state, not just one county.”
But officials in rural counties say those state police resources — primarily specialty teams such as tactical units, crisis negotiation, underwater recovery and the bomb unit — are not helping understaffed sheriffs’ offices, and municipal police departments meet the core responsibility of law enforcement – public safety.
According to the most recent state crime data, 14 people have been killed in Washington County since 2017 — one of the worst rates statewide. Deputy Chief Mike Crabtree said the county’s soaring drug problem is largely to blame.
“We’ve always had violent crime, the problem now is the frequency of the violence,” Crabtree said. “A lot of these calls lead to death. These are no longer one-person calls.”
In Patten, public safety officials said a reduced police presence resulted in slow response times for emergency calls by the state police, which went from 28 troopers responding from the Houlton Barracks down to only two, according to Lt. Brian Harris, the Troop F commander.
Since June, officials say there have been several times that ambulance crew members waited up to two hours for police and one time no one came, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Even farther north, the situation can be worse. Although there are three small municipal police departments in Piscataquis County, the sheriff’s office, with only five deputies, covers 99 percent of all calls, about 4,000 calls a year spread out over roughly 3,900 square miles, excluding Baxter State Park. Chief Deputy Todd Lyford said the lack of law enforcement and the jaw-dropping geography means they run the risk of suspects getting away before officers can reach the scene.
“We just had a call in the deep, deep woods up into Chesuncook, which takes 2 1/2 hours to get to. Then I had to get on a boat across a lake to an island to deal with a call,” Lyford said.
Like six other counties, Piscataquis chose not to have a call-sharing agreement with the state police. Lyford said his understanding is the call-sharing agreement they had 15 years ago was not continued because of “poor communication.”
Still, all the officials interviewed for this story said the reality on the ground is that with or without a call-sharing agreement, in a pinch the state police will assist when called, at least to the best of troopers’ ability.
For example, the recently signed call-sharing agreement with Washington County acknowledges the potential for this type of informal arrangement, stating in part, “The Maine State Police will continue to staff a uniform trooper in Washington County to the extent resources and staffing allow. To the extent that resources and staffing allows when a trooper is assigned to work in the county, we will respond to all requests for assistance from the sheriff’s office.”
But the agreements are fast becoming irrelevant because there aren’t enough troopers to cover Maine’s vast state, and also provide the technical and specialty assistance that every county relies on.
The governor’s 2020-21 biennial budget proposal requested from the Legislature a total of 10 state trooper positions and five sergeant positions to meet severe staffing shortages. The positions were not approved.
“The state police have not seen a compliment increase to our rural uniformed patrol division in over 40 years, while the demands and mission of the State Police have increased significantly beyond just rural patrol,” said Shannon Moss, the public information officer for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Since local law enforcement appears to have a slightly better track record with recruiting, some county officials had suggested shifting the unused funds from the state police’s unfilled vacant positions to the county. The proposal was dead on arrival due to statutory and prior allocation restrictions. In an interview conducted prior to his summons on an OUI charge, Washington County Commission Chair Chris Gardner expressed outrage at the impasse.
“Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of the collective. And if you aren’t stopping bad actors, and you can’t get to the hospital when you need it, what really is government spending their money on?” asked Gardner, who also serves as a reserve officer in Eastport.
But Foss, the former trooper, said shifting the money would have only replicated what’s happening with recruiting. He said it’s an illusion that local departments are attracting more officers.
Foss said officers are simply being shuffled back and forth due to better pay and a host of other reasons, including burnout. Not atypically, during his 24-year career Foss has served as a municipal officer, a part-time deputy, as a Marine Patrol officer and a trooper.
Lyford in Piscataquis County agreed, saying it’s also happening there, with one deputy recently switching to the Greenville Police Department. Lyford said local law enforcement departments are offering more money, better benefits and beginning to look beyond state boundaries for recruits, with modest success.
Foss added that pulling troopers out of their communities to serve exclusively on specialty teams also should be re-examined. He said it’s the opposite of community policing, which he knows is successful.
Foss has gotten heart-felt letters of encouragement during his recovery from people he had to arrest and send to jail. He recounted one incident involving a violent suspect when Foss told the state police tactical team it needed to stand down.
“I said, ‘what do you need a tactical team for, I know this guy,’” Foss said. “I went alone and told the guy I had to take him in. He just said, ‘yeah, OK — if you don’t mind, I just want to put down a bunch of food for my cats before we take off.’”
Foss said an officer’s tongue is his most valuable weapon. Maine’s rural residents, increasingly worried about public safety and rising taxes, are hoping county and state officials also can learn that lesson, and it’s becoming critical that they do.
In Lubec, for example, most homeowners just saw their tax bills double after a revaluation. It’s a harsh reality many communities are facing as they brace for yet another hit for additional police coverage.
Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis told the Quoddy Tides that the Maine Sheriffs Association and County Commissioners Association plan to meet in September, holding a joint session to discuss the law enforcement pressures the state’s counties are facing.
York County Commissioner Richard Dutremble, president of the County Commissioners Association, said he is confident all officials can come together and find a compromise.
“There are answers if people will sit down and talk about it. We’re all here to solve this for the taxpayers. So let’s get it done,” Dutremble said.