After almost six years as the head of the Presque Isle Police Department, Matt Irwin has been thinking about ways law enforcement could work better in Aroostook County.
And while it’s a very hypothetical, perhaps “pie-in-the-sky” idea, Irwin said he thinks it could make sense for Aroostook County to have a county-wide police force, given the demographic and financial challenges facing many communities large and small.
The County currently has about 45 full-time law enforcement officers, between the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and municipal departments, not including the Maine State Police, Irwin said.
“You could put that number of people to work across the entire county and have full-time, properly trained police officers. We’d probably reduce a lot of costs,” said Irwin, an Ohio native who spent more than two decades in policing in Florida before coming to Presque Isle.
“Communities can barely afford what they have. Finding ways to pay for quality service with less money seems to be an opportunity.”
With less than 70,000 people living in more than 50 communities across more than 6,800 square miles, “having one police agency in Aroostook would be a lot easier,” Irwin said in an interview, after briefly touching on the issue during comments at a recent Presque Isle City Council meeting.
If administration and overhead costs can be reduced, the thinking goes, expenses can be spread more equitably across a larger area. It could also be a way to afford better salaries for law enforcement officers, as many rural agencies have trouble recruiting and retaining them, Irwin said.
Currently, the starting wage for a Presque Isle police officer who has not been trained at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is $16.41 an hour, while a new Aroostook County deputy sheriff starts at $15.95 an hour.
Irwin said that the municipal, county and state police agencies do work well together in most cases, but he argues that many departments are not sufficiently funded for their responsibilities and that aspects of the law enforcement system are inefficient.
Improving how public safety is paid for and managed has been on Irwin’s mind for some time as the Presque Isle Police Department has encountered issues such when having to transport suspects being held on charges, which can involve “all sorts of craziness,” as Irwin put it during a recent city council meeting.
Individuals who are arrested by the Presque Isle Police Department and need to be held in jail ultimately are taken to either the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton, or as an intermediate step to Caribou’s holding jail. The Presque Isle Police Department has adequate holding cells but pays Caribou to hold inmates because the PIPD does not have staff to manage inmates, Irwin said.
One time, Irwin said, a Presque Isle officer had to meet up with a judge at the Presque Isle Country Club to have an authorization signed to hold an inmate longer because the suspect was unable to get to Caribou in time to see a judge. Anyone being charged with a crime needs to appear before a judge within 48 hours.
The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county jail, operates an inmate transport three days a week to pick up suspects being held by municipalities. Irwin said that the van can’t always be used due to timing, although he said he’s grateful for the sheriff operating the service, since it’s ultimately each municipality’s legal responsibility to transport inmates to county jail.
Due to the circumstances, the PIPD spends as much or more than $1,000 per month paying Caribou to hold inmates, while driving inmates to the county jail in Houlton can take up two hours of an officer’s time, Irwin said.
And beyond the inmate transport issue, Irwin said that sharing police resources across The County would help improve overall public safety — because crime transcends borders.
“Many communities do not have 24/7 police coverage but are paying for a police department in some way,” Irwin said. “It really is inadequate for some of the problems we have.”
Some small towns have their own small police force. Ashland, for instance, with a population of about 1,300, has a police chief, two full-time officers and several reservists. Others, like Easton — with about the same population as Ashland — contract for police services with the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and pay based on the level of service the town receives.
Irwin acknowledges that the idea of a county-wide police force is not likely to be readily adopted any time soon. “How you get that done with all the municipal governments, I don’t know.” But he said he’s raised the issue, including with the Presque Isle’s city manager and the sheriff, to start a conversation that could lead to more collaboration.
“Consolidation is starting to occur all over the place,” Irwin said, referring to municipal police departments in other parts of the country. It’s similar to the challenges facing local governments and school districts in areas with aging and declining populations.
If any major consolidation or integration of municipal police departments would happen in The County, it would need to come from the grassroots of local communities, said Aroostook County Sheriff Darrell Crandall.
“Hypothetically you could design a system that would be effective and could do that,” Crandall said of a county-wide police force.
Crandall said he thinks one of the biggest factors in any hypothetical “regionalization” of police services would be local control and the desires of taxpayers, particularly in the larger rural municipalities like Presque Isle.
In Presque Isle, the city council and the city manager effectively oversee day-to-day management of the police and major police issues such how many new squad cars to buy in a year or whether to spend more on hiring new officers, Crandall said.
The sheriff’s office, however, contracts with municipalities and gives local officials some options for what level of services they want, between 24/7 access or on call deputy service, Crandall said. “It’s a decision for citizens.”