Police chiefs and town managers from Damariscotta, Waldoboro, and Wiscasset discussed the benefits of community policing, cooperation with community organizations, training for how to handle mental health-related crises, and recruitment of officers during a two-hour forum via Zoom on Thursday, April 8.
The Maine Municipal Association hosted the open town hall, moderated by Rebecca Graham, legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association; and Noel March, director of the Maine Community Policing Institute at the University of Maine at Augusta.
At the start of the meeting, March said that Maine has ranked as the safest state in the country in U.S. News and World Report’s public safety rankings for four straight years.
“That’s not a coincidence, particularly year after year. It comes from a whole lot of ingredients that we enjoy here. And one of those is opportunities like tonight,” March said.
State Rep. Lydia Crafts, D-Newcastle, asked how police departments are connecting with the communities they serve outside of law enforcement duties.
March said that community policing involves three components: partnerships, problem-solving, and organizational change.
Damariscotta Police Chief Jason Warlick discussed speeding complaints, saying they are one of the most common issues small-town police departments deal with.
Warlick said that when he responds to a complaint, he asks the resident if they will sit in the police car with him to watch for speeders. He said this accomplishes two things — showing the resident the problem may not be as bad as they think and affording an opportunity to talk to the person without an “intimidation factor.”
“They’re in a cruiser with me, they’re there voluntarily, and basically we get an opportunity to talk about what the real issues are other than speed,” Warlick said.
He also referenced his department’s “Dogs of Damariscotta” pictures on Facebook, showing officers with dogs they meet around town.
He said this is part of “trying to figure out a way to get the public to interact with us, not just sitting in our office or at a traffic stop.”
Waldoboro Town Manager Julie Keizer said that Waldoboro officers have delivered food to people and staffed the town’s drive-thru food pantry.
Waldoboro Police Chief John Lash said he and Warlick work with the Lincoln County Recovery Collaborative through the Central Lincoln County YMCA.
Warlick said the collaborative formed when police departments and other agencies realized they were not going to “arrest our way” out of the addiction epidemic.
He said the Damariscotta Police Department hosts a meeting every Wednesday morning for people in recovery from addiction and also talks with their family members.
“I wanted to essentially let them know that there’s no excuse. We can help you, we can give you the tools and resources to do it, you just have to want to do it,” Warlick said.
Warlick said he believes that a shift to community policing after he became chief in 2017 led to a dramatic decrease in burglaries in Damariscotta — from an average of 35-50 per year down to five last year.
“We changed nothing other than community policing and the substance abuse group,” Warlick said.
Damariscotta Officer Phil Tessier asked how departments will deal with an influx of summer residents who want to “cut loose” after a year of COVID-19 restrictions.
Bath Police Chief Michael Field, who serves as district representative for the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said traffic will be the main problem from the influx of tourists. He noted that mental health calls have increased in the past year.
Wiscasset Police Chief Larry Hesseltine said that he has seen more road rage incidents in the past year than he has in his whole career.
“People just seem to be angry,” Hesseltine said.
He said that when traffic on Route 1 picks up, he struggles to respond to the increase in complaints about speeding on side streets.
Damariscotta resident Dick McLean asked about the officers’ training in mental health crisis intervention.
Lash said the Maine Criminal Justice Academy mandates that 20% of officers in all departments complete crisis intervention training through the National Alliance for Mental Illness.
“I have found that some of the mental health calls, it’s just common human decency. You treat these people the way you would want to be treated in that situation and I’ve found that that is very helpful,” Lash said.
He said that police departments can never get enough training, since it is always evolving, but the main limitations are lack of funds and lack of coverage for officers to attend training.
“Everything really comes down to the money piece and the time piece,” Lash said.
Crafts asked about how police departments recruit officers and specifically how many female police officers there are.
Field said the association is considering a subcommittee on recruitment because of how challenging it is to find qualified officers.
“I’d love to have more diversity and I think all my colleagues would feel the same,” Field said.
Warlick said departments cannot recruit officers in the community because small departments in Lincoln County cannot pay as well as those in Southern Maine.
Lash said his department is down two officers and officers jump from small department to small department.
“We’re eating our own,” Lash said.
Lash said that sometimes the Waldoboro Police Department will get a fresh, qualified applicant, but the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is so backed up that the applicant cannot attend basic training.
“COVID has really crippled us in hiring officers, especially green officers who have never done this before and are looking to get into it,” Lash said.
He also said salaries need to be increased to recruit better applicants.
“You want professional officers, you have to pay them like professionals. I guess that’s the bottom line,” Lash said.
“I’ve never seen something like this, what I’m seeing tonight. You all should be commended,” McLean said of the open town hall.