The Knox County Sheriff's Office. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine — The town of Vinalhaven once again has a full-time sheriff’s deputy patrolling the community after a year marked by a high-profile killing on the island, which eroded trust between residents and law enforcement.

The new deputy started on the island before the new year, following a monthslong conversation about how the Knox County Sheriff’s Office can better serve the island. Full-time police coverage there had been in limbo since July 2020, when the town rejected paying for services from the sheriff’s office following the stabbing death of Roger Feltis and the lack of resulting criminal charges.

While contract discussions between the sheriff’s office and island representatives were borne out of a tragic situation, both parties felt it was beneficial to communicate what concerns the community has and what it expects in terms of police coverage.

“If we only do it once every five years, or after a horrific incident, that’s not helpful. But hopefully this is the beginning of what can be a beneficial check-in process between the town and the sheriff’s office,” Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr said.

For decades the sheriff’s office has contracted with the towns of Vinalhaven and neighboring North Haven to provide police coverage on the islands. But finding deputies who want to live and work on the islands has been a challenge. The islands are located more than an hour from the mainland by ferry from Rockland, and officers are often on-call 24 hours a day.

After reaching an agreement to renew the island’s law enforcement contract with the county this past fall, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office hired Deputy Chad Abbott, a former Maine game warden and most recently a patrol sergeant for the town of Wilton. Abbott is the sole officer on the island, though the deputy assigned to the neighboring island of North Haven reports there when needed.

Deputy Chad Abbott. Credit: Courtesy of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office

The deputy who served Vinalhaven prior to the town rescinding funding for the position began a 12-month deployment with the Maine National Guard in the fall. Some island residents raised concerns about the deputy’s handling of incidents leading up to Feltis’ death. But Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll said his office looked into the complaints and found no explicit wrongdoing.

“That was a huge tragedy that happened out there and there were a lot of emotions involved. The outcome, from a legal standpoint, didn’t settle well with many people and I understand that. The frustration is going to be with the law enforcement because those are the people that are hired specifically to protect them,” Carroll said. “There was a loss of trust there. We’re going to do our best to build that trust back.”

Communication will be key in building back the trust that was lost, Carroll said. In the new contract, certain stipulations have been included to try and increase communications between the deputy stationed on the island and the town government.

The deputy stationed on Vinalhaven is now required to attend at least one select board meeting every month. Carroll said he is encouraging the deputy to go to as many town meetings as he can. Additionally, the deputy will provide a daily report to the town manager, summarizing the calls he responded to that day.

“It comes down to communication. It comes down to paying closer attention to what is going on and what is happening. It’s listening to the people and I’ll do the best I can to provide that,” Carroll said.

Throughout discussions, residents expressed that they wanted more than a “deputy who sits in the parking lot looking for speeding tickets,” Dorr said. Since Vinalhaven is located 12 miles from the mainland, accessible only by boat or plane, Dorr said it’s important for a police presence to be felt on the island.

“When there is no one physically on the island people notice. That’s when things tend to get loud,” Dorr said.

Ideally, Vinalhaven would like two full-time deputies stationed on the island in order to increase its police coverage. One deputy is only able to provide 40 hours of coverage per week, and Dorr said residents would like to double those hours by hiring a second deputy ― a position the island is willing to fund.

However, finding just one qualified candidate willing to relocate to an island community has been a challenge for the sheriff’s office in the past.

It is not clear if a second deputy will be hired. However, if that does happen, Vinalhaven would likely be responsible for paying the entire salary for the position. Currently, the county and the town split the cost of the sole deputy’s salary and the town is responsible for providing a housing stipend.

Vinalhaven residents understand that the position is a difficult one to fill, but they remain hopeful.

“You can’t expect someone to completely pick up and call this place home,” Dorr said. “The best case scenario is when they can call Vinalahven home, but that’s a big assumption to put on someone.”