Fort Fairfield Town Councilor Mark Babin asks Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen about a law enforcement proposal during the town council meeting. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Bangor Daily News

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Aroostook County is down 21 town police officers, Sheriff Shawn Gillen said during the Fort Fairfield Town Council meeting on Wednesday night.

While Gillen, who had been asked to give the town a law enforcement proposal, has not had trouble hiring deputies, he talked about the challenges Fort Fairfield and other towns face in hiring and retaining police officers.

“I usually get deputies from you,” he said, referring to officers leaving town police jobs to work for the sheriff’s department. “And it’s going to get worse if qualified immunity goes away.”

Currently, there is state legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, that aims to remove police officer protections against civil lawsuits known as qualified immunity.

When Van Buren temporarily closed its police department in December, sheriff’s deputies were stretched thin, Gillen said.

“I’m a bit gun-shy about this after what happened in Van Buren. They closed their doors on me. My department was stressed picking up their calls and our calls too,” he said, adding that he has concerns the same thing could happen in Fort Fairfield.

“Having worked here [Fort Fairfield] in December and January ourselves, I was naturally concerned,” he said. “I will tell you, it does put a strain on us when you’re running short. The last few months we’ve helped and assisted.”

Fort Fairfield currently has two officers working full time, two part time and two officers in training, waiting to attend the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Town Manager Andrea Powers said after Gillen’s presentation.

Fort Fairfield Police Chief Shawn Newell is on administrative leave, but Powers declined comment regarding Newell and staffing.

During the meeting, Gillen said that deputies have been helping the town recently, but did not tie it to Newell’s absence. Attempts to reach Gillen for comment last week about covering Fort Fairfield were not successful.

“There are other towns on the verge of closing their police departments and that is a concern,” Gillen said. “I am concerned about the town [Fort Fairfield]. I’m concerned you’ll not be able to find people. I’m concerned that you’ll up and close your doors [the police department] What’s stopping you? Maybe a contract can alleviate the strain on us and keep your doors open.”

Gillen gave the town three possible options for three deputies to cover three shifts per day at annual costs ranging from $390,000 to $630,000.

In two of the proposals, all equipment such as firearms, computer, cruiser, portable radio would be provided by the sheriff’s department.

Proposal No. 1: Includes all wages and benefits associated with a deputy including all equipment, paying the full police academy reimbursement for an officer just out of the academy. The total deputy coverage to the town would be an annual average of $529,550, a 2.1 percent increase over the 2020 police expenditures of $518,780, according to the proposal.

Proposal No. 2: Includes all wages and benefits associated with a deputy including all equipment. This proposal does not include police academy reimbursement and would be for deputies hired that do not need this. The annual average of $442,550 would be a 19.7 percent or $76,000 savings over the Fort Fairfield 2020 police expenditures of $518,780, according to the proposal.

Proposals No. 3: Includes all wages and benefits associated with a deputy, but does not include equipment such as a cruiser, portable radio, firearms or ammunition. And with this proposal, the town could use the equipment the town currently owns. This option does not include academy reimbursement and would be for officers who are five or more years post-academy certified.

“The total deputy coverage to the town of Fort Fairfield would be an annual average of $399,800,” the proposal reads. “This would be a savings to the town budget for police services by about 30 percent or $118,980 over the 2020 police expenditures of $518,780.”

Additionally, Gillen said the town would save its annual dispatch service fee that it pays to the state of Maine for police dispatch.

“I’m not really advocating for change, but if the town wants my help, I will provide it,” Gillen said. “This proposal is not for my benefit, it’s to help you.”

Despite the noted cost-savings for the town, Town Council Chair Mitch Butler said the town could not afford to consider the proposals.

“We’ve been through this before. They are too costly,” Butler said. “I can honestly tell you, this was not authorized by the town manager or the town council. It was an individual request. We are not considering it and if we were to consider the sheriff, it would be too costly.”

Town Manager Andrea Powers also said she did not ask for the Sheriff’s proposal, but Gillen was listed on the agenda and during the meeting Powers recommended Gillen’s presentation.

Town Councilor Scott Smith had suggested in the February council meeting that Sheriff Gillen be added to the March meeting agenda.

Regarding Gillen’s proposals, the Town Council took no actions and Powers said it would be a council decision.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...