A reserve deputy with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office is seen in this 2015 photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

In the 20 years Todd Brackett has served as the sheriff for Lincoln County, he’s always struggled with understanding how the public feels about the service his agency provides.

“Are people satisfied? Do they trust in what we do? Do they believe in what we do,” he said.

Brackett is hopeful that a soon-to-form citizen’s advisory committee might give him better answers to these questions.  

The committee will help review policy and potentially recommend changes, as well as serve as a conduit for communication between the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the public. 

This is the latest in a growing number of committees being established in Maine to either review the policies of local police departments or serve in a broader advisory capacity. Lincoln County appears to be the first Maine sheriff’s office to form this type of a committee. Brackett did not know of any others in the state, though said sheriff’s offices in other parts of the U.S. have established similar committees.

In Lincoln County, an initial steering group is currently working with Brackett to establish the exact parameters for the committee and select community members to serve on it.

“Like many law enforcement leaders, probably most, I’m concerned about the national mood regarding law enforcement, the mood here in the state. I understand the importance of communication and transparency and I just want to try to be as effective as I can,” Brackett said. “All I’m really trying to do is open our doors and put together a diverse group of citizens from around the county to act in an advisory capacity to me here at the sheriff’s office.”

The conversation surrounding policing in Lincoln County began in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a broader movement across the country demanding police accountability.

Rev. Charlene Corbett, of the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, reached out to Brackett in June 2020 with concerns about uniformed deputies showing up to a peaceful gathering at a park near the church. At prior demonstrations, the deputies were present but wearing street clothes. But an incident in nearby Bath prompted the sheriff’s office to send deputies in uniform on one occasion.

“This is a peaceful protest, we don’t need this kind of a visual, what we need is engaged conversation and an opportunity for there to be conversation,” Corbett said. “I reached out to Todd the next day and said…‘This isn’t how we should do this, let’s think about this in a different way, in a more constructive way.”

Around the same time, Matthew Hanly of Bremen, a retired educator from the Detroit, Michigan, area, was having his own questions about policing in the community.

“I had no preconceived notions one way or another, I was just curious,” Hanly said.

Corbett and Hanly worked with Brackett to organize a community conversation in July 2020, where about 40 people showed up at the Bremen Fire Department to talk about policing issues like use of force.

From this community conversation, a seed was planted and Brackett expressed interest to Hanly and Corbett about establishing a citizen’s group. The pandemic delayed the effort, but several months ago, Brackett reached out to Hanly and Corbett about serving on a steering committee to form the group.

“Anytime you can have dialogue between those in authority and those over whom they have the authority, I think there’s a great opportunity for understanding that flows both ways and the outcomes can only be positive from that,” Hanly said. “That’s not to say there is anything wrong, it’s just simply to say we can do better. In my mind this isn’t coming from a crisis, or an incident. We’re trying to ensure engagement in both directions.”

The steering committee has expanded to include five Lincoln County residents and is looking to expand further, to increase the size and the diversity of the group that will be tasked with forming and selecting members to serve on the citizen’s advisory committee. The group hopes to name the founding members of the committee sometime this spring.

“I don’t want to pick [the committee members]. I don’t want this to be the ‘sheriff’s good old boy’ network. I want it to be as realistic a snapshot of the folks who live and work here in Lincoln County,” Brackett said.

Brackett and steering committee members are hoping to get as diverse a group ― people from different racial, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds ― as possible in an attempt to ensure a multitude of perspectives are brought to the table.

Corbett said achieving the goals of increased communication, transparency and accountability with the sheriff’s office will require there to be difficult conversations about community policing and the issues that intersect with it, like use of force and racial profiling.

“That’s one of the things I think we’re trying to strive for in creating this advisory committee is to ensure that there is a diversity of voices heard. Dialogue is hard to have these days, but we really want to get engaged citizens who have the ability to be respectful and listen and to engage in debate respectfully,” Hanly said.