Sergeant Keith Ouellette of the Caribou Police Department stands in an area of the current station where officers keep locked ammunition and case files in the same vicinity as housekeeping materials and a machine the department uses to process narcotics evidence. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Officers process narcotics evidence in a small closet where they store paper towels.

Locked ammunition and case files are stashed where there’s room, often in the same spaces as housekeeping items and office paperwork.

Mold is growing on the walls in the garage, and rain is damaging rooms inside the police station.

The 80-year-old Caribou police station is cramped, and the department wants a new one, but the $10 million price tag has some city officials nervous about burdening taxpayers. Voters will decide the issue on June 14.

During a time when law enforcement is under national scrutiny for everything from how they conduct themselves in the field to proper chain of evidence to gun safety, the 3,000-square-foot Caribou facility doesn’t meet even basic standards for housing a police department. But the facility didn’t get that way overnight, and now the building constructed in 1939 may be beyond repair. If the referendum passes, the city would issue requests for proposals and choose an architect to design a new building.

“We don’t have the amount of space we need for the work we do,” Chief Michael Gahagan said. “I’ve been chief since 1977, and that was the last time the space was renovated.”

Mold has begun forming along the walls inside the Caribou Police Department’s vehicle garage. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

Sgt. Keith Ouellette knows those realities all too well.

For instance, officers process narcotics evidence in the same room where employees store paper towels and toilet paper, in a small closet where there is also a locked cabinet for law enforcement ammunition. The department’s information technology equipment shares a space in the kitchen, which also houses boxes of utensils and other incidentals.

Numerous small spaces within the station, including the employee shower area and Gahagan’s office bathroom, are storage areas for non-sensitive files that officers need easy access to, such as accident forms. While open case files are not legally required to be locked, unless they describe child abuse cases, all closed case files are secured and stored at an undisclosed, city-owned location due to the lack of space in the station.

The police department has failed routine Maine Municipal Association inspections meant to gauge potential safety and health concerns.

“We’ve had to shove stuff in corners, wherever there is space available,” Ouellette said, during a recent tour of the station. “The rooms we do have are cluttered, and we haven’t passed inspections because of the type of items we have in certain places.”

Caribou Police Sergeant Keith Ouellette points to an area of the station’s break room that has had excessive water leakage in recent years. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

Maine statute requires police departments to maintain policies that keep evidence and sensitive case files locked and closed case files secured until officers can dispose of or return evidence.

For example, the Presque Isle Police Department has a strict protocol that requires evidence and case files to be stored in a place that can be locked. Only three people have access to the locked evidence area, Chief Laurie Kelly said Tuesday.

That department keeps criminal reports even once the case is over or the defendant is dead.

“It does cause a definite space issue. We have started to digitize our files but still have rooms full of case report cabinets [in case the digital files get compromised]. We have stuff as far back as the ’40s and ’50s,” Kelly said.

Caribou also locks its evidence and case files but lacks a designated space to store them.

A significant increase in drug-related arrests over the past decade in Caribou — from one or two a year a decade ago to weekly now — has led to confiscating more drugs, weapons and cash, increasing the need for storage space.

Though COVID-19 led to a decrease from 90 drug-related arrests in 2020 to only 41 in 2021 — due to less officer interaction with the public — it already looks like 2022 will catch up with 2020 numbers. Gahagan’s department has made 25 drug-related arrests as of April, he said.

The department transports all drugs to the state lab in Augusta for testing but has to store the large number of guns seized along with them.

The station technically has room to store 40 weapons, but police are storing 150 in a locked 2.5-foot-by-6-foot room, not including the department’s guns. Many of the 150 guns were confiscated from people who are under investigation for committing crimes.

Caribou Police Sergeant Keith Ouellette stands in a room that doubles as the police station’s IT software unit and kitchen. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

“In our largest [seizure] of 2021, this person had 11 guns, about 1.7 pounds of meth and half a pound of fentanyl,” Gahagan said.

On top of that, the station’s most recent plumbing issues have gone unrepaired.

Rainwater has leaked from upstairs, staining the wall of the break room, Ouellette said. Mold has been forming for years in the three-car garage — which is also too small to store the department’s six patrol cars and two ATVs.

Inside the station, a jail cell designated for female prisoners has a toilet and sink that have not been upgraded in 25 years.

“They don’t even make parts for this [sink] anymore,” Ouellette said. As he turned the faucet, water quickly leaked from the handles. “It makes a mess every time someone uses it.”

Left to right, Sergeant Keith Ouellette points to one of many areas that Caribou police officers have used to keep accident forms and other non-sensitive materials easier to access files at their cramped station headquarters. Caribou Police Sergeant Keith Ouellette explains the lack of sufficient space officers have to process evidence for drug-related cases. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican

Ouellette, one of four sergeants and 16 officers who work for Caribou Police, said that all employees see the need for a new station as dire and support the June 14 referendum.

But one sticking point for city leadership is the price tag.

More financially conservative city councilors have called the proposed $10 million cost a burden to taxpayers, especially if loans increase the tax rate.

Councilor Doug Morrell, who has long opposed the cost of a proposed station, recently wrote in a local editorial that the city should consider alternatives, such as relocating upstairs municipal offices to another building and giving the entire structure to the police department.

“I know you’ve been told that the city office building will not work. There are citizens who feel it will,” Morrell said. “[Caribou Municipal Building] has worked for years, and it can continue to work for many more with a $2.5 million investment.”

Morrell was referring to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ $2.5 million congressional appropriations request for the current proposed station, suggesting it be used to renovate city hall instead.

It could take city officials at least a year to make changes to the plans to reduce project costs if Tuesday’s referendum fails, Gahagan said.

But he hopes most voters will understand why his department can no longer wait for a new building.

“Come in and take a tour,” Gahagan said. “We’ve always had the support of the community. We’ve given tours, and I think over the years people have understood that we need a new space.”