Washington County communities are scrambling to fill a vacuum after a long-feared decision by the Maine State Police to end trooper patrols in the county took effect early last month.
Although there had been ongoing discussions about a significant change, county officials didn’t receive official word until late May.
“They just dropped the bomb and said as of this date, bang, we are no longer going to be able to provide coverage,” said Calais City Manager Mike Ellis.
A new agreement between the State Police and Washington County Sheriff’s Office, which went into effect July 9, ended an already dwindling call-sharing arrangement.
Over the last few years, rural patrols in Washington County, as well as most of the state’s 11 rural counties, were scaled back by State Police. According to the sheriff’s office, since 2015 the shared criminal call response agreement dropped from a 50-50 split to only a third of the county’s calls being answered by troopers.
Now, there aren’t any troopers routinely patrolling Washington County’s 3,258 miles.
When they learned in May that patrols would end in little more than a month, county commissioners called an emergency meeting to approve $140,000 in county funding for the sheriff to immediately hire an additional deputy.
Chris Gardner, the chairman, said the commission will decide at year’s end whether to add funding for another three deputies, per the sheriff’s recommendation.
“If we had been given the cold, hard truth when they talked to us last year about what was going to happen, then you certainly would have seen the budget committee act well before now,” Gardner said.
After last-minute negotiations with the sheriff’s office, troopers will still answer half of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) complaints and cover all fatal crashes in the county. But Michael Crabtree, the Washington County chief deputy, said it wasn’t much of a negotiation.
“They were basically saying, ‘we’re changing the resource agreement and if you don’t agree to this, we’re doing it anyway,’ ” Crabtree said.
Maine law mandates that state police will continue all Maine Turnpike and interstate system patrols, commercial vehicle inspections, and investigate all homicides. Additionally, under a restructuring model that went into effect in January, the agency is gradually reassigning troopers previously dedicated to rural patrols to beefed-up specialty teams, including tactical units, crisis negotiation, underwater recovery and the bomb unit. These state police services as well as other specialty teams continue to be available to county police agencies.
But state troopers patrolling Maine’s rural community roads are quickly vanishing.
“As the demand for these specialties grow, and as our staffing numbers become more challenging, it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance both that frontline patrol mission and our specialty mission,” said Lieutenant Michael Johnston, the northern field troop commander for the State Police.
According to Major Lucas Hare, head of the Maine State Police operations division, the agency is struggling to fill 52 vacancies. The total roster has fallen to 331 officers, from a 1980 high of 370. Although there are 24 or so recruits soon to be sworn in, Hare said that retirements quickly cancel most of the gain every year. Currently, he said, 42 troopers qualify for retirement.
Still, the difficulty recruiting isn’t unique to the state police.
Ellis, the Calais city manager, said its police department has three vacancies it can’t fill. With only three full-time and three part-time officers to protect roughly 3,000 residents, Ellis said that even using overtime, some shifts simply can’t be covered.
He said that means relying on a random rotation of days with no police coverage. One backup strategy had been to use the state troopers patrolling the region, but with that option gone, the city’s sole backup is the sheriff’s department.
For that as-needed coverage, Calais will pay $327,000 this year, up from $300,000 annually. That brings the total tab for police protection to about $1 million. Ellis said the city increased the budget line, anticipating increases as the sheriff’s department ramps up to meet new demands stemming from the state police restructuring. All of the towns pay proportional amounts for sheriff department coverage.
State Police Lt. Johnston confirmed that the Washington County Sheriff Department is now picking up the bulk of the roughly 2,500 calls that troopers covered on average each year. As the sole backup for the county’s seven small municipal police departments, as well as towns without their own police, that means 16 sheriff deputies will have to respond to upwards of 11,000 calls per year, according to sheriff’s department officials.
“I’m a retired state trooper and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis said. “Basically they are emphasizing their specialties, but they’re leaving all of us high and dry.”
Still, officials with the Maine State Police argue that the decision to scale back — or in cases such as Washington County and a handful of other counties, eliminate routine rural patrols completely — was a tough, yet necessary decision.
Hare said the agency runs about 4,000 overtime shifts each year, leading to troopers sometimes forced to be on duty for more than 100 hours a week. He said the burdensome schedules, coupled with low pay and the inherent danger of the job, leads to burnout and makes recruitment difficult.
Johnston, the State Police lieutenant, adds that although the police and sheriff departments are filling the void, officials and the public shouldn’t look at the shift purely from a qualitative perspective. He said the specialty calls troopers still respond to are high-impact, high-resource calls.
“If you’re having a tactical team respond to a barricaded situation involving a subject with a dangerous or deadly weapon or a hostage situation, then we’re sending 20 to 25 troopers and they could be there for 12 to 24 hours,” he said.
But the numbers also matter, especially in small towns such as Milbridge, which sits about midway along Washington County’s coast. The town’s manager is also the chair of the county budget committee and the Milbridge police chief, the sole officer in the town.
Lewis Pinkham, who wears all those hats, said they’ve been trying for three years to hire two additional officers. With overlapping duties and limited time, Pinkham said he can’t be out on patrol, so the state police pull-out is an unexpected hardship.
“All I’ve got is me,” Pinkham said. “They said they were in the process of trying to restructure, but they did not come out and say that six months or seven months, we are going to be all done doing patrols. No, they did not.”
Gardner, the county commission chairman, questions whether the State Police have the authority to end their rural coverage.
Gardner, who is the director of the Port Authority, a former police officer and current reserve, said the state troopers have always done a tremendous job. He said county officials understand that the state agency is short on manpower and doing the best they can with limited resources.
“They don’t have enough bodies. We get it better than anybody,” Gardner said. “We need to partner with them, especially in rural Maine. But working together isn’t saying we’re not doing it anymore, you do it. That’s not working together. That’s an abdication of responsibility.”
He added that putting the onus for police patrols onto the counties amounts to a silent tax shift. In Washington County, that shift could end up costing taxpayers, a large percentage elderly, an additional half-million dollars.
Washington County officials say poor rural counties shouldn’t have to choose between keeping taxes manageable or protecting their communities.