Police Services in Maine: The Structure
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer
(from Maine Townsman, October 2002)

         Can law enforcement be provided more efficiently and effectively in Maine? That’s one of the questions implied by renewed interest in consolidating and regionalizing public services, from schools to trash collection.

       Part of the focus is undoubtedly prompted by rising property taxes in many communities, and shortfalls in the state budget. Selectmen, legislators and candidates for governor are asking whether it’s possible to save money by changing the way services are provided. Yet another factor, particularly where law enforcement is concerned, is increased public expectations. 

       The advent of a statewide E 911 system which, when fully operational, can pinpoint emergency response from any telephone, the use of DNA evidence to solve crimes, increased training levels for all law enforcement officers, and a new call for increased homeland security are just some of the changes occurring over the past decade.

       Unlike fire protection, which is provided in Maine almost solely by municipal departments that are, in turn, staffed largely by volunteers (see Jan. & Feb. 2002, MAINE TOWNSMAN) police forces are staffed with full-time, paid professionals.  Unlike the municipal delivery of fire protection, there are three distinct levels of direct law enforcement: the Maine State Police, 16 county sheriff’s departments, and 122 municipal departments. 

       The amount of consolidation possible for fire departments, with their largely volunteer structure, is probably limited from the perspective of cost savings, with only larger towns and cities – 20,000 and up – having full-fledged professional departments.    

      In theory, it ought to be possible to rearrange law enforcement responsibilities more readily on a shared or regional basis. All full-time officers in Maine — state, county and local — now take the same 18-week course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. The new academy, housed in the former Oak Grove-Coburn Academy, was designed for larger classes in accord with a legislative initiative to offer equivalent training to anyone certified as a full-time officer.

       Alan Hammond, the academy’s acting director, says that studies for standardized training began in the early 1990s, adding that “considering expectations by the public, it seemed appropriate to offer the same course to everyone.” The King administration put its weight behind the idea upon taking office, and the new academy project was under way.

       The old academy in Waterville wasn’t large enough to allow the expanded course; it could offer only three 12-week courses a year, since it could handle only 40 students at a time. In Vassalboro, attendance averages 50-55 for the new twice-a-year course. Each department contributes $1,000 toward tuition, and the academy spends about $600,000 a year on training.

       Hammond said the fact that officers from all parts of the state and different levels of law enforcement train together will undoubtedly have an effect on camaraderie, and the ability of different departments to work cooperatively, when needed. “Training is a very important part of the law enforcement experience,” he said.

       That assumption of a common professionalism played a key part in the findings of a 1975 federally-funded study of law enforcement in Maine, under the now-defunct Maine Law Enforcement Planning and Assistance Agency. While the study is probably forgotten by the public, it is nevertheless well-remembered by many law enforcement officers still on the job.

       Its key recommendation was that Maine replace its county and municipal system of law enforcement with a single set of agencies under the “district policing” concept. Specifically, as the February 1975 Townsman  reported, “The State of Maine should merge all existing municipal police department and law enforcement activities of sheriff’s offices into approximately 20 consolidated police departments,” which would be known as law enforcement districts.

       The plan, which suggested that a prototype district police department be set up voluntarily, ultimately had no concrete effect, and is now viewed as politically unrealistic.

       A professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, responding to the plan, wrote that, “to reshape government along functionally-oriented single-purpose structural lines does not allow the citizens an effective way to express themselves in the policy-making process.”

       Translated from academese, the criticism was that the district policing plan followed no existing governmental structure, and thus offered no possibility of local control.

       In fact, the proposed structure for district policing was unwieldy. Rather than building on the county model, it proposed a whole new set of districts – saying that the Legislature should “authorize the appointment of a board of police commissioners in each LED” with “the authority to raise revenue to finance the operations of the district-wide police departments.” It did not say where the revenue would come from.

       Proponents of the report also contested the notion that local control of police departments is always a good thing: "Ironically, 'no local control' has been the most frequently cited criticism of the report. Yet, during our interviews with police administrators, the lack of police department autonomy (too much local control) was most frequently cited as the major problem facing existing departments.”

       Other observations in the report were more difficult to refute, and may still be relevant. One of its findings was that, to offer a full range of police services the public expects, a department needs at least 10 full-time officers. By that standard, only a small number of municipal departments could be considered “full service,” and some of the smaller counties would also fall below the 10-officer standard for their sheriff’s patrols.

       In fact, if the study were being done today, it would probably have suggested a higher number of officers, according to Col. Michael Sperry, chief of the Maine State Police. Over the past 25 years, public expectations of police have risen considerably, and there is far more specialization in crime-solving techniques, he said.

       One change that didn’t occur was the study’s assumption that police departments would have to grow considerably. It noted that Maine’s ratio of police to population – 1.1 to 1,000 – was far lower than the national average of 2.4 per thousand. At that point, serious crime rates were rising rapidly in the country as a whole, and in Maine at a rate higher than the national average — a circumstance the study used to promote the idea of restructuring.

       But crime rates peaked around 1980 and have fallen considerably since then. By some measures, Maine is the safest state in the county, so the ratio of officers to public probably hasn’t changed much since then.

       Still, even in a low-crime state, criminal activity is a major public preoccupation, and there have been numerous other changes since the 1970s.

       Outside the cities and larger towns, initial police response usually comes from State Police or the county sheriff’s office. But it wasn’t always clear who would take the call, or who was in the best position to do so.

       Shortly after his administration took office, Governor King asked the State Police to coordinate more closely with the counties as part of his interest in promoting better regional cooperation. As a result, since the mid-1990s the state has signed formal call-sharing agreements with 13 of the 16 counties; 12 of them continue in force.

       Although the State Police has 350 troopers on duty, “When you spread that out over three shifts, seven days a week statewide, we’re spread pretty thin,” said Colonel Sperry. Call-sharing “let’s us know where everybody is” and allows improved response time.

       Should it be in force in every county? Sperry says that’s up to the individual sheriffs. At the moment, the two most populated counties, Cumberland and York, are not participating, perhaps because they believe they can handle emergencies on their own. But two of the smallest counties, by population, Somerset and Piscataquis, are also outside the network.

       Piscataquis County, in fact, had a call-sharing agreement but allowed it to lapse. From a law enforcement perspective, the agreement was a success.  “The clearance rate for crimes improved for both departments, indicating we were both working more effectively,” Sperry said.

       Different law enforcement agencies aren’t always comfortable working together. Sperry pointed out that, like municipal police chiefs, his position is appointed and subject to review by elected officials. Sheriffs, however, are chosen directly by the voters, and may have their own view of how to respond to the public.

       The E 911 system and the effects of sprawl, with far more people living outside urban centers, have also had a significant effect on the demand for services. Over the past 10 years, emergency calls for State Police have gone up 45 percent, with much of the increase coming from the growing suburban areas.

       Some specialized police activities – the state crime lab is an example – are effectively centralized already. The lab processes evidence in cases from all parts of the state, including those brought by county and local departments.

       The Attorney General’s office certifies which departments can investigate homicides, and at the moment, only Portland and Bangor are certified, with all other cases handled directly by State Police.

       “We had a department recently that wanted to be certified,” Sperry said. “They had four detectives and investigate other serious crimes.” But a certain amount of repetition is necessary to hone skills, he pointed out, and Maine usually has only 20-25 murder cases statewide. “Last year, there were only 11. In a particular city, you might go for years without a case,” Sperry said. “You have to manage your resources carefully.” Last year, he had to send three detectives to Florida for two weeks on a case. “There aren’t many departments that can afford to do that,” he said.

       Though there are slightly more municipal departments than there were in 1975, few have been formed in recent years, despite significant growth in previously small towns. Some once-rural communities with more than 6,000 people still don’t have local departments and don’t appear likely to create them.

       On the other hand, most communities that start police departments do maintain them. All of Maine’s 22 cities have full-time departments – even Eastport, which has just 1,640 people.

       There are a few exceptions. In the 1990s, Lebanon eliminated its police department as part of a long-running fiscal crisis. In the 1980s, Norridgewock, which had maintained a small municipal department but had trouble staffing it consistently, disbanded it and instead contracted for coverage with Somerset County.

       The contracted “resident deputy” program is used in several Maine counties. For example, Harpswell contracts both for regular police and marine patrol coverage with Cumberland County, and Buckfield hires a deputy from Oxford County for local coverage. Such arrangements are, however, still relatively rare.

       The State Police also offers contract services to towns, and so far has one client – Tremont, on Mount Desert Island. While the state service is a bit more expensive than what most counties offer — $70,000 covers everything, including the patrol car, equipment and maintenance – Sperry says some towns may find it attractive, since it can be tailored to individual needs.

       The State Police was also recently awarded the dispatching contract for Aroostook County’s E 911 system, the first county to use the state for this service.

       Regional efforts among towns are hard to find. Some years back, Norway and Paris, which already share trash collection services and save considerable money by doing so, explored the possibility of merging their police departments — each have seven full-time officers.

       Personnel considerations prompt-ed the discussions, Norway Town Manager David Holt said, and it didn’t appear that significant money would be saved. In the end, the town departments stayed separate. “In the long-term, I still favor the idea,” Holt said. “But the folks we have working for us are important. You can’t just mandate things and force your will on people. Things that threaten people don’t always work out.”

       In the early 1990s, Gardiner faced strong citizen demands to cut back on municipal spending, and looked at a plan which would have effectively made the local department a division of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department.

       Mayor Brian Rines, who’s a strong advocate of regionalization, said the plan would have saved money, but ultimately foundered because of pension benefit issues – it would have taken nearly a year to transfer the State Retirement System credits – and the city didn’t have that long. “I believe it would have happened if it hadn’t been for that,” Rines said.

       Instead, Gardiner eliminated two officers’ positions and combined the fire and police chief positions into a public safety director (it is one of only two municipalities to use this system, the other being Hampden.) “It was the most difficult budget vote I’ve ever made, but we felt we had to do it,” Rines said.

       The most recent state study of prospects for regional cooperation did not focus on services but on financing. The Task Force on Intergovernmental Structure, composed of 21 legislators and state, county and municipal officials, filed its “Proposal to Reduce the Cost of Government Through Reform of Governmental Relations” in November 1997.

       It pointed out that, while counties perform many state-mandated services, the state does not pay for most of them, instead leaving it to counties to finance services by drawing on local property taxes. This often makes counties unpopular with local officials, and while budget committees composed of municipal officials have been added to the budget process in some counties, they have not been the silver bullet to keep county budgets in check.

       The task force recommended that the state shoulder about 60 percent of the cost of county government, and do so through a 2.5 percent revenue sharing fund similar to the 5.1 percent of the state’s broad-based taxes that now goes to municipalities. It also recommended that each county be required to hire a professional administrator, and that more authority be vested in the elected commissioners, who could number three, five or seven. The task force attempted to deal with the issue of appointing certain county officials instead of electing them, but ran into strong political opposition to the idea.  In addition to the politics, the sheriff's position would have required a state constitutional amendment to be changed from elected to appointed.

       On the issue of rural patrols, it suggested that towns without their own police departments be assessed a higher rate for sheriff’s patrols, since they are more likely to require county response to emergency calls.

       The counties – which would presumably have to work with both other levels of law enforcement on any regional plan – continue to have an organization similar to what existed in the 19th century, the task force noted. “Counties are not now structured as an intermediate level of government … They are structured as an administrative subdivision of the state, and the basic structure hasn’t changed much in 200 years,” it reported.

       Only four counties – Cumberland, York, Aroostook and recently Kennebec – have professional administrators. The task force argued that municipalities should become “the primary customers” of counties, and said, “This will require counties to restructure themselves to gain municipal trust. Management must become more professional and entrepreneurial.”

       It also recommended encouraging more interlocal agreements between municipalities, though noting that relatively few such agreements exist now. “A system of incentives may be needed,” it observed.

       Though the task force agreed to the recommendations unanimously, the report’s insistence on immediate cost savings – property tax rates were to be “frozen,” with elaborate procedures to raise new revenue required even when new programs were being added – proved a stumbling block. It gave no consideration to the prospect that offering services regionally might improve professionalism and offer more to the public. Ultimately, the plan attracted little support from the officials who would have had to carry out its recommendations, and was quietly shelved by the Legislature.

       Observers of the task force proceedings say that a more thorough overhaul of the structure of county government may be needed before the financial adjustments it envisioned could be implemented. Without such changes, the prospects for significant new regional cooperation involving the counties and the state, and counties and municipalities, may be limited — even where professionals like police officers are concerned.


NEXT MONTH:  While several previous initiatives for regional policing have failed to attract concerted support, the idea hasn’t gone away. We’ll examine some specific notions for how cooperation can increase, and how a rural state can provide better police coverage without expensive new additions to existing law enforcement resources.