HOULTON, Maine — It’s early Wednesday morning, and Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca is giving a presentation on the use of all-terrain vehicles.
Always check your ATV beforehand to make sure it’s working properly. Take maps and first-aid survival kits. Be aware of symptoms for heat exhaustion or frostbite. In rural Aroostook County, such guidelines are necessary for officers to respond to any emergencies that could occur while off-roading.
It’s just one of the courses that newly sworn-in officers Wyatt Foster and Sean Farrell will take during Houlton Police Department’s Training Week toward becoming full-fledged police officers for the Houlton PD. They are joined by several other trainees from across Aroostook County, such as the Fort Fairfield and Washburn Police Departments. This is the second stage. The officers had undergone a two-week law enforcement pre-service program, held in Houlton but including newly recruited officers from police departments across the state.
The number of people applying to enter the police force is down significantly across The County — by 21 police officers, Sheriff Shawn Gillen told the Fort Fairfield Town Council recently. Recruitment has been a problem for the last several years, not just in Aroostook, but statewide and across the nation, DeLuca said.
“There are several factors for it,” DeLuca said. “A lot of it is the demands for the hiring process. A lot of it is the demands for the work schedule.”
And of course, there is the elephant in the room — the numerous high-profile police killings that engulfed the country in protests last summer. The deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota sparked outcries of racism and police brutality, with Black Lives Matter protests organized all across the country, including a more than 100-person protest in Houlton. (Houlton police provided protection for the event, and organizers of that event said their protest was not directed toward the HPD.)
“It’s the way our communities, our national rhetoric and opinion is of law enforcement that’s been brought on by a couple of bad law enforcement officers and making poor decisions,” DeLuca said. “So that’s created for our communities, not so much here [in Houlton] but throughout the country, to have a different, more grave look at who’s protecting the law.”
The other major event of the previous year, the COVID-19 pandemic, has had an impact on police recruitment too. The Basic Law Enforcement Training program, or BLET, a mandatory 18-week residential training program for police officers, was suspended for nearly a year, meaning police departments have had to provide in-house training instead of sending officers to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Several training courses, such as hand-to-hand combat and crisis intervention, were also suspended.
But with vaccines being administered to the population, and first-responders getting priority when it comes to vaccine distribution, Foster and Farrell will be able to move on to the academy once they complete their training week in Houlton.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and officers Foster and Farrell are at the police shooting range as part of the training week’s course in firearms qualification. They are joined by Vance Palmer, a veteran instructor from the police academy, and Sgt. William Janakis of the Houlton Police Department.
Janakis had led a course in the use of police tasers the day before. Today, the new recruits are practicing with Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic pistols. The weather in Houlton remains cold and snow still coats the ground, and the officers have to practice firing prone in the snow.
“We live in northern Maine, so most of them do have experience with firearms already,” Janakis said. “So today they’re doing a bit of training with the guns and then they’re doing their academy qualification, which allows them to carry a gun as a police officer.”
While at the range, Palmer gives several pointers to Foster and Farrell. If standing behind a barricade, don’t use it as a weapons rest, and learn to shoot behind cover accurately. When behind cover, don’t expose yourself, and instead aim for whatever of your target is in your line of sight.
He gives a real-life example: In the North Hollywood shootout of 1997, two heavily armed bank robbers were involved in a lengthy standoff in Los Angeles. A dozen police officers were injured, and the robbers were killed in the shootout due to the targeting of vulnerabilities on the robbers’ body armor.
“As far as shooting goes, it’s always good to have somebody there who knows what he’s doing,” Foster said of Palmer’s instruction. “He’s done it for 40 years, so it’s great to have some tips from him and you can always learn new things.”
For Janakis, the North Hollywood shootout also is symbolic: It marked a turning point in law enforcement, when police officers began using more advanced weaponry and equipment. In more recent years, criticisms of police militarization have been part of the ongoing protests against police brutality.
“That was the end of the kind of Andy Griffith cops,” Janakis said about the shootout. “It was the moment that we realized, okay, we can’t be outgunned on a routine call.”
Helping people in crisis
It’s Friday of Houlton Training Week, and Foster and Farrell are meeting with Glen Targonski, a paramedic with the Houlton Fire/Ambulance Department, who is teaching them how to administer Narcan.
With the heroin epidemic still gripping Maine, police must carry Narcan in order to save someone from a potential overdose. Holding a container of Narcan, Targonski tells the officers that one of the benefits of using Narcan is that if it is used on someone mistakenly believed to have overdosed (such as someone who had a stroke), it will not cause any harmful effects to them.
“It’s nice to see the new job openings being filled,” Targonski said after the lesson. “We need more young people in The County.”
Targonski also shows the officers how to give CPR, using adult and baby mannequins to practice on, since the methods are slightly different for each.
“I was familiar with CPR, but the last time I did it was in college in 2010,” said Farrell, who worked as a TSA officer in Massachusetts before moving to Aroostook County. “Some things have changed in the process since then, so that was really good to get recertified.”
Following the lessons, the officers are given a multiple choice test to demonstrate their knowledge, which are then graded using the honor system. After lunch, the officers go back to the classroom to meet with Matthew Hunter and Kelsey Theriault of the Aroostook County District Attorney’s Office to discuss domestic violence cases.
Hunter, an assistant district attorney, tells them that around a quarter of their cases will likely involve domestic violence.
“They’re challenging cases. They’ll be your hardest cases, because it’s not like on TV,” Hunter said. “If I’m somebody who routinely beats up on their partner, not shockingly my dating pool is real small, and it’s composed of almost exclusively vulnerable people who come with baggage. They tend to have personal histories that make them easily impeached on the witness stand.”
“There are a lot of obstacles that victims end up facing after they have contact with [police],” Theriault, a victim/witness advocate with the DA’s office, tells them. “So if you ever have a victim who is kind of stuck, doesn’t know what steps they need to take, you can refer them to me.”
The pandemic has led to increased cases of domestic violence, since people were forced to isolate indoors, making it harder for them to stay away from abusive partners.
“Everything has been very different last year with COVID,” Hunter said. “Trials have been delayed, so when you pick up on a DV case, that thing is going to have a lifespan of nine months, if it’s truly contested. When you’re in a small town like this, you’re going to know everybody.”
“In this situation, we understand that this isn’t a good time for anyone involved, but we just want to get as much help as we can while making sure people are held responsible for their actions,” Theriault said.
Houlton officers Foster and Farrell will now do 80 hours worth of field training where they are accompanied by a field training officer. Once that is completed, they will begin the 18-week academy training course.
“I think we got better training than during the thick of the COVID pandemic,” Foster said. “We’re kind of on the tail end of [the pandemic] now, so we’re definitely getting where we need to go now.”