County Meets to Address Crime, Drop in Police Officers

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Town News
Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis and Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree watch as Baileyville Police Chief Bob Fitzsimmons addressed the public during a special meeting of the Washington County Commissioners on Monday, Jan. 8. Fitzsimmons said that it has become difficult for police departments to hire new officers because of low wages. “Is $15 an hour a fair wage for [police work]?” he said. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

County commissioner Chris Gardner led a special commissioners’ meeting at the Washington County Courthouse on Monday, Jan. 8 to discuss the escalating impacts of crime in Washington County. Despite slippery roads and a prior weather cancellation, courtroom number one was filled with local law enforcement, selectboard members and concerned citizens.

The discussion lasted two hours and centered on the twin problems of rising crime and a shortage of law enforcement officers, which Gardner said is a nationwide issue. “There are not that many gatewatchers left,” he said. 

Washington County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree said he definitely sees a crime increase and a change in the types of crimes being committed in Washington County.

“We’ve always had crime in Washington County, but now what we’re seeing is an increase in the more violent crimes, such as home invasions with weapons, robberies, gunplay to include shootings, and stabbings,” he said. 

Crabtree noted there have been two murders in the county in the last eight months, and that it was a miracle that no one was killed during a recent shooting spree in Calais. “We need to treat this like the organized crime that it is, and we need to go after it,” said Crabtree.

Baileyville Police Chief Bob Fitzsimmons agreed that a different kind of crime has moved into the region. “I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before. This is not your corner weed dealer,” said Fitzsimmons. “This is a whole different ball game, and they’re playing for different stakes.”

Many speakers lamented the nearly impossible task of filling open positions for police officers. 

Baileyville is home to the Woodland Pulp mill, where Fitzsimmons said high school graduates can work for $25 an hour, significantly more than the starting wage for a police officer. “I’ve had an opening for the last six months, with a $4,000 signing bonus, and zero applicants,” he said. “People don’t want to be police officers anymore, for different reasons.”

Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien said that Machias advertised a police officer position in state and out of state for over a year without filling it. 

“Crime is making larger investments in Washington County than public safety is,” said Gardner. ”That’s really what it comes down to.”

Therrien said she thinks Downeast communities need to come up with a creative way to attract people to the work of law enforcement, and that she doesn’t believe paying more money alone will solve the problem. Pointing out that there is not one detective on staff in all of Washington County, Therrien said she wondered if towns could work together to hire one. “Could we split duties and training costs amidst municipalities? I think that’s something well worth talking about,” said Therrien.

Milbridge Police Chief Lewis Pinkham agreed that a lack of police officers is part of the problem, and said that another is the lack of regulations to hold the offenders in prison. “I think we catch them, and they get released. A lot of it is because some of the laws and regulations have changed,” he said. “I think if we hold people accountable more we would have a better handle on the local stuff.”

Though the purpose of the meeting was to discuss crime and not the drug epidemic, drug related crimes seem to account for much of the increase. Fitzsimmons said that Washington County is a hugely profitable territory for drug dealers from other states. “I have spoken to some of these guys from the Bronx, they have a rule of 10,” he said. “You buy it for $10 in New York City, you sell it for $100 here. $1,000 there is $10k here.”

Malcolm Holmes of East Machias suggested creating a repeat drug dealer list that would function like the sex offender registry does, so that communities could know where the dealers were located.

Speaking from the perspective of a recovered addict, Dylan Lord of Lubec said he agreed that the region needs more law enforcement officers. “But it’s not going to solve anything on its own,” said Lord. “I really think that a lot of focus should be on prevention. I used for 18 years and for 16 years I was trying to get clean.” Lord suggested that money would be better spent preventing young children from trying drugs rather than persuading grown users to quit.

Gardner said that the commissioners will be meeting again with local stakeholders to discuss next steps for the county. He closed by urging residents to view themselves as the owners of a business in trouble, and the county employees as the managers awaiting direction on how to fix it. “We’re working for you,” he said. “What would you have us do?”