Tough Decisions on Local Law Enforcement

(from Maine Townsman, March 2010)
By Douglas Rooks

Like many municipal services, police departments have been greatly affected by the economic downtown, with a resulting squeeze on budgets and staffing. And for the first time since the early 1990s, a town’s voters have approved dismantling a municipal police department – although that decision in Bethel will now be subject to a second vote in June.

In Monmouth, it took five tries to finally pass a police budget, with approval not coming until months after the town budget went into effect. The police chief resigned shortly after the budget was passed, and the town briefly entertained discussions of what alternative policing arrangements could be made.

But economics are only part of the decision on whether towns should retain their police department. Equally important are concerns about coverage, expertise, retention of officers and even the style of policing.

“Some people say that consolidation will always produce better service, but I don’t see that,” said Robert Schwartz, long-time executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “A lot of towns want local service. It’s very important to townspeople. You can lose a lot through consolidation.”

That point of view remains popular across Maine. There are 117 municipal police departments, nearly all with designated chiefs (though Gouldsboro has recently operated without one), along with the 16 county sheriff’s departments and State Police. Despite concerns that the small departments that prevail in many communities are less effective at investigating crimes, municipalities that have police departments generally retain them.

The only recent example found, before the Bethel vote, of a town disbanding a full-time police department goes back to 1991, when Lebanon voted to do so. A subsequent special town meeting rejected an attempt to reinstate the local force. Lebanon, though relatively populous (5,705), retains a selectmen/town meeting form of government, and has neither a town manager nor an administrative assistant.

Some fairly small municipalities (Frye Island, Carrabassett Valley, Swan’s Island) have municipal police departments while some relatively large ones (China, Gray) do not and rely on county and state coverage. Gray, with a population of 7,266, is one of the larger towns without a municipal police department. It has a State Police barracks and a county patrol center, and voters have repeatedly shot down attempts to provide local law enforcement officers.

Some mid-sized and larger communities contract with the county for police services. Standish, which began growing rapidly in the 1970s and now has nearly 10,000 residents, pays Cumberland County to provide six full-time officers. Harrison (pop. 2,436) also contracts with Cumberland County for one officer, plus two more during the summer season.

But in Oxford County, replacing Bethel’s department with county patrols would be a first.

The drama began last fall, when, on behalf of selectmen, Town Manager Jim Doar asked Oxford Count Sheriff Wayne Gallant to prepare a plan that would allow the county to assume policing responsibilities. Police Chief Alan Carr had resigned in September, and the department was short-handed, relying heavily on seven part-time officers. Only one full-time officer was still on the payroll, though Bethel normally staffs with four full-time officers and eight part-time, or reserve, officers.

Bethel, where the population swells both in summer and in winter – thanks to ski resorts – has had trouble keeping certified officers on patrol. Doar said that these concerns have been recurring for at least the last 10 years.

“We rely a lot on the reserves, and we may push the envelope,” he said. By law, part-time officers can work only an average of 20 hours a week, and have less training than full-time officers, who must be certified.

“The average length of service for a full-time officer during that time has been about 18 months,” he said. The difficulty in keeping officers on the job has several causes, including a declining talent pool overall. “It doesn’t seem like as many people want to be police officers in the first place,” Doar said.

Small departments do have greater turnover, he said. And since all full-time officers must graduate from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, towns must not only pay staffing costs during the course, but provide backup coverage as well.

After officers gain experience, “They often want to move to a bigger department where there’s better pay and benefits and more opportunities to advance,” Doar said. In Bethel, even the police chief is out regularly on patrol.

Oxford County Plan

The approach to Oxford County was designed to address several factors. One was to save money, but even more important was to gain continuity in staffing and to provide reliable 24-hour coverage, a high priority for residents, he said.

Sheriff Gallant came up a budget that was about $20,000 less than the $295,000 Bethel is currently paying for a municipal department, and the county price would stay the same for three years. It included 24-hour coverage, something the town insisted on even though there are short gaps in the county’s (and state’s) patrols at night. Three full-time deputies would be assigned to the town, and the other 12 deputies at Oxford County would be on call, he said.

“There would be other benefits to the town that people may not have noticed,” Gallant said. The county would take over administrative duties, “meaning that officers would be out on patrol, not in the office processing paperwork.” And the three-member investigative team would do the detective work, providing improved crime-solving for the town.

Hearings on the plan included discussion of response times, which some saw as more important than how well officers were trained. The relatively small difference in cost – 7 percent for the first year – meant that the debate played out mostly around what services the town would receive from keeping the department or transferring that responsibility to the county.

At a Feb. 9 special town meeting, the county option prevailed on a vote of 104-89.

The next day, some voters who were unhappy with the result talked about petitioning selectmen for another vote. The petition was later presented to selectmen, but they decided a new vote wasn’t necessary.

“It wasn’t as if the town didn’t have the chance to decide. There was no new information in the petition,” Doar said. Instead, it was a legal issue that delayed the planned transfer to the county scheduled for March.

Town Attorney Geoffrey Hole advised that, because the previous town meeting had appropriated funds for a municipal department, paying the county by contract might face a legal challenge.

Not all the selectmen were convinced. Some argued that it is their responsibility to assign police coverage under state law, which they can meet by funding a municipal department, contracting for the service, or simply allowing the county and state to patrol, as many towns do. But at their Feb. 19 meeting, selectmen failed to ratify the county contract on a 3-2 vote, meaning that the June town meeting will have to take up the issue again.

Doar said that although interest remains high regarding the police issue, he hasn’t heard anything that would suggest townspeople will reach a different conclusion in June. “If we were ever going to do this, now would be the best time.” With only one full-time officer on board, there would be relatively little disruption, and Doar said there was a good chance Oxford County might be willing to hire the officer.

Local Department Retained

In Monmouth, the issues over the police department were longer running, but resolved more definitively, at least for now.

When voters first started rejecting the police budget, selectmen weren’t sure what the objections were, according to Town Manager Curtis Lunt.

“What did the voters want? Was is about the money, or was it something else about the way the department was run?” he said.

Selectmen tinkered with the budget, and each time voters considered it there were big turnouts and close margins, but four times it was defeated. Then, on Nov. 27, a fifth ballot produced a 482-410 margin in favor.

Shortly thereafter, Police Chief Robert Annese resigned, though Lunt said that the reason, while not publicly disclosed, did not involve the budget stalemate.

Selectmen then turned their attention to what kind of policing the town might want. One option discussed was contracting with another town for administrative services while retaining local officers. In neighboring Winthrop, Police Chief Joe Young, said his town could do that – but he wouldn’t encourage an arrangement that involved only administration and not staffing.

This was the fourth time in his 24-year tenure in Winthrop that Monmouth had made a similar inquiry, Young said. “I didn’t draw up a detailed proposal this time, but we did offer a concept draft.”

The idea Monmouth had of simply contracting for administrative services wouldn’t have worked, in Young’s view. “I can’t really take responsibility for officers I hadn’t hired and whose qualifications we’d never reviewed.”

Young was willing to be flexible about details, and said Winthrop could have purchased Monmouth’s existing patrol cars and equipment, with the understanding that it would be transferred back to Monmouth at the same price if the arrangement didn’t work out.

He thinks there would be significant advantages for Monmouth, and for Winthrop, to put together a larger joint department. “They would have gained 24-hour, seven days a week coverage and be relieved of the administrative overhead.”

Officers in a joint department would become familiar with the entire territory, so “Everyone would be familiar with the work we have to do.”

The two neighboring towns do not have a long history of cooperation. Monmouth joined a new regional school district, RSU 2. Winthrop remains on its own, although it is close to partnering with Fayette. Still, there have been joint ventures between the towns. “Yes, there’s some rivalry,” Young said. But, he added, “There’s been a joint adult education program for years and, from what I can see, there’s no reason it couldn’t work elsewhere.”

Monmouth’s reaction, Lunt said, was essentially “thanks, but no thanks.” Selectmen decided to go ahead with interviews for a new chief and received 18 applications. A hiring is expected shortly.

“We’ve been through this before,” he said, noting that Monmouth is “just large enough to have its own department” but small enough to keep asking, “Why do we need this?”

Retention is definitely an issue, he said, with three departures in the last three years. While some departing officers join county forces or State Police, one decided to become a game warden. “It was apparently what he’d always want to do.”

Looking Ahead

Even though most municipal departments will probably remain intact, that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes, particularly this year, said Robert Schwartz of the Chiefs Association.

“Budgets have been under pressure for the last few years,” he said, with municipal department delaying purchases of new cruises, cutting back on new equipment and limiting hours.

“This year it may start cutting into personnel, since there’s nowhere else to go,” he said.

In Oxford County, Sheriff Gallant said he had “tons” of inquiries about the proposed arrangement with Bethel, and said he could have more “when they see how it works out.”

The biggest factor for preserving local departments, even the smaller ones, may boil down the sense of local control, both chiefs and sheriffs say.

But for Chief Young, that may not be the right way of looking at the issue. “Local control isn’t the same for police as it might be for another municipal service,” he said. “You don’t want local officials to be telling police what cases to investigate and when they should make arrests.”

“Naturally, if the council says they want us to patrol more on Main Street and stay away from Route 202, we’ll listen. But law enforcement is a different kind of responsibility.”

Jim Doar agrees. “Local control of police is in many ways a myth,” he said. “They work for the DA at least as much as they do for the town.”

That reality, he said, was enough to shift his own position on the issue. When the selectmen first asked him to explore an arrangement with Oxford County, “I wasn’t for it, personally,” he said.

But after considering the pros and cons, he changed his mind. “We wouldn’t be giving up a lot, and we can make sure we have well-qualified officers on the job around the clock.”

 

 

Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman, drooks@tds.net