Washington County law enforcement faces unprecedented pressures

The nature of crime has changed, according to Chris Gardner, who has served as a police officer since the 1990s.
Sheriff Barry Curtis poses for a photo in his office.
More manpower is needed for the kind of work involved in responding to and solving murders and drug‑related crimes that are on the rise, said Washington County sheriff Barry Curtis. Photo by Ryan David Brown.

Washington County has experienced a 50% drop in crime from 1995 to 2022, according to statistics collected by the Maine Department of Public Safety and issued every year in an annual Maine Crime Report.

However, Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis, Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree and Washington County Commission Chair Chris Gardner say the numbers do not tell the story of crime in Maine and in the county, and the pressures law enforcement agencies are facing with stretched resources.

Those agencies include the Maine State Police, which has not seen an increase in its patrol troopers since 1977, despite asking the legislature for more every year.

The nature of crime has changed, said Gardner, who has served as a police officer since the 1990s. When he first started out, crimes revolved around domestic violence and drunk driving.

Unfortunately, “these have not diminished,” he noted. Drug peddling by users was common, but that began to change as organized drug distribution made its way into the county.

When Curtis first came on board as sheriff he knew there was a large drug problem.

“It was quite obvious that there were a fair amount of people from out‑of‑state doing business. We weren’t prepared. We had one person on the drug unit and had another added, but it was overwhelming. It’s a long, tedious process to collect evidence and get them into the court system.”

More manpower is needed for the kind of work involved in responding to and solving murders and drug‑related crimes that are on the rise, the sheriff says.

As an example, Curtis pointed to the 2019 operation “Red Lobster” when 30 people were arrested in one day. “But it had a lot of other law enforcement help.”

“The governor has hung her hat on crime being down, and it isn’t true,” said Curtis. Part of the issue is the way crime reporting has been collected, he adds.

Until 2021, the Maine Department of Public Safety used the FBI’s Unified Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. “The UCR is slightly problematic,” said Gardner. Most agencies struggled to get the reporting with the UCR system accurate, explained Crabtree.

He noted that the UCR crime definitions “stymied reporting” and made it hard to report successfully. “We struggled with this.” The UCR definitions were murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

Challenges faced to accurately reflect number of crimes

Crime categories and crime “clearance” rates sound straightforward, but Curtis, Crabtree and Gardner suggest that the UCR reporting did not make it so and that it did not accurately reflect the nature of crimes and thus the need for the legislature to dedicate resources in the state budget to the challenges being faced by law enforcement.

The Maine Crime Report UCR numbers show the number of crimes in Washington County in 1995 at 783, or crime rate of 22.05 per one thousand people, with a clearance rate of 42%.

The numbers stayed above the crime rate range of 20 per one thousand people until 2012 when they began to decline, with 2017 the lowest at 277 crimes and a crime rate of 8.85 per one thousand people.

Since then the rate has begun to climb with 2020 at a 9.26 crime rate and a clearance rate of 38%.

The clearance rate is important to evaluating the UCR numbers, explained George Shaler, the director of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the Catherine E. Cutler Institute for Health & Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine.

It’s an equation, with the number of arrests made in a year by a law enforcement agency divided by the number of incidents reported to a law enforcement agency. The FBI’s UCR website explains that in order to qualify as “cleared,” a law enforcement agency must report that an offense has met three criteria: that at least one person associated with a crime has been arrested; charged with the commission of the offense; and turned over to the county for prosecution.

The FBI states, “In its clearance calculations, the UCR Program counts the number of offenses that are cleared, not the number of persons arrested. The arrest of one person may clear several crimes, and the arrest of many persons may clear only one offense.”

“Clearance doesn’t necessarily mean conviction,” Shaler added.

Of the clearance rates, Shaler said, “It’s interesting in that they vary by crime type. Certain crimes are investigated more vigorously than others. Crimes against people are easier to clear,” whereas with other crimes, with the person or persons who committed the crime unknown, it’s “harder to find the offender.”

In addition, he noted law enforcement decisions may take into account the resources they have available when making decisions about what crimes to vigorously pursue.

Under the new reporting system used by the state since 2021, the National Incident‑based Reporting System, the crime rate in Washington County is reported to be 12.17, but Shaler noted an important difference between the new reporting system and the old one is the dynamic nature of the new.

“The figures can be updated,” he said. “We’re getting far more detailed information than we did from the UCR.”

In addition, Crabtree notes that the new reporting model’s crime categories are “a much more cop‑friendly system, and we’re hoping the numbers will be a bit more accurate.”

“The static numbers of summary UCR were easier to work with for publications and comparisons over time but did not as accurately reflect the changing nature of crime statistics,” the Maine Department of Public Safety noted in its explanation for the change

State patrol trooper numbers static since 1997

The Maine State Police have not had the number of patrol troopers increased since 1977, said Gardner, a fact that Shaler heard with surprise.

Shaler pointed to the 2021 Maine Crime Report’s statistics about patrol coverage by county agencies that show the need for Maine State Police coverage. The Washington County Sheriff Office’s patrol rate is 0.7 per 1,000 people.

“That’s a tiny number.”

Baileyville is closer to the state average, with a patrol rate of 2.8. The report shows that Calais, Eastport, Machias and other towns are below average, in part because of the difficulty in filling vacant positions.

“We have repeatedly said over the last four and one‑half years that the Maine State Police haven’t had a patrol staffing increase since the 1970s,” said Shannon Moss, public information officer with the Maine Department of Public Safety. “Like many other law enforcement agencies in Maine we are facing a significant staffing shortage. We are 50 troopers down, with dozens of retirements looming.”

Gardner places the fault squarely with the Maine Legislature for failing to address the need for more patrol troopers. “The Maine State Police have asked for more every year.”

Maine State Police Lt. Michael Johnston, commander of Troop J, now part of the Northern Field Troop responsible for Washington County, says that the challenges facing the MSP are unprecedented.

Not only are the MSP facing a large class reaching retirement, but they’re also facing “a very challenging recruiting environment.” In addition, over the last 40 years, there has been a “decrease in the authorized head-count but an increase in the mission, and that is exacerbated by staffing challenges.”

The MSP are supposed to have a minimum of one trooper patrol Washington County 24/7, 365 days a year. This works out to two troopers for a 24-hour cycle, with each on a 12-hour shift.

The work “takes a lot more time and resources than before,” Johnston said. There are now special tactical units dealing with high‑risk incidents, “and those numbers are going up and up and up.”

Uniformed troopers tasked with the tactical units are supposed to be part‑time, he says, but they are becoming full‑time, meaning they are pulled away from other work. “We have to cancel time‑off, be creative and do the best we can.”

“There’s an impact on state police when one trooper is supposed to be responsible for seven to eight communities,” said Johnston. If a trooper responds to a crisis in one community, then the other communities go without.

“They can only do so much with the resources we have.”

Calls for service double

Calls for service are a good indicator of crime taking place in the county, noted Gardner.

“That number is a trend‑line for moving nothing but up, and that can all be attributed to the drug trade.”

The county’s Regional Communications Center received 4,453 calls in 2015, with 2023’s numbers projected to be almost double at 8,826, based on calls‑for‑service received so far this year. These numbers do not include those calls‑for‑service made directly to local law enforcement agencies such as the Calais Police Department.

“A lot of calls require more than one officer. There’s more gun play, violent crime,” said Crabtree. “We’ve always had violent crime, but not like this. “It takes a couple of people to respond.”

Gardner noted that when he became police officer in the 1990s there were 55‑57 full‑time law enforcement officers just with the county and municipal departments. “Now there are 45, and four to 10 of those are open because we can’t fill the positions” because of recruitment challenges, he said. The sheriff’s department has a total of 19, with 13 on patrol.

“I’m concerned about burn‑out,” Curtis said.

Right now “they get one weekend every six weekends. I would like to change that so they could get a few more. It’s not good for family life, for the officer’s life.”

If he had his druthers, the sheriff’s department would have four to five more on the roster, but the significant increase to the county budget, which is largely paid for by county taxpayers, has kept the county budget committee from adding more than one at a time. Along with the officer’s salary and benefits are the added costs of a vehicle and other equipment.

Funding such an expansion “unfortunately falls to the local taxpayer,” Curtis said. There should be more resources coming from the state, he added.

“We’re not a wealthy place” when it comes to the tax base, he said. “I’ve been to Augusta and spoken and tried to ask them to find something to tax so that the county isn’t taxed to death.”

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This story was originally published by the Quoddy Tides, and is republished here with permission. 

Lora Whelan, Quoddy Tides

Lora Whelan is the assistant editor and publisher of The Quoddy Tides newspaper, based in Eastport.
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