The concept of community policing isn’t new, but a throwback to police officers walking a beat.
The Waterville Police Department is seen Oct. 5, 2022. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville is laying the foundation for a policing model that builds deeper trust with residents of all ages and connects them to appropriate resources, which city leaders hope will lead to more meaningful problem-solving.

This work, known as community policing and used across the country, is underway as Waterville awaits findings from a $40,000 external review meant to chart the police department’s future operations. Interim City Manager William Post anticipates a draft report from the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police in late March, he said.

Recent steps that Waterville has taken include enrolling patrol Sgt. Kyle McDonald in a Maine Community Policing Institute online course through the University of Maine at Augusta and creating a new civilian position for a community outreach coordinator funded by the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Waterville’s police department isn’t the first in Maine to implement community policing, but its decision to intentionally commit to the model could pave the way for others, especially as the university works to attract more students and established officers to its program.

That means the city’s nearly 16,000 residents should notice differences in how police interact with them, work to prevent crime and address mental illness and drug use, among other issues.

In 2023, it’s particularly important because criticism and fear of law enforcement has mounted since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and other killings that sparked nationwide protests.

Waterville interim Police Chief William Bonney hopes community policing can build greater trust with city residents and improve recruitment.
William Bonney, Waterville’s interim police chief, is seen in this February 2020 file photo. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar / BDN

Community policing leads to a more engaged and safer community where residents and stakeholders are part of problem-solving, said William Bonney, Waterville’s interim police chief.

“For me, the biggest thing is relationship building. That’s where this all starts,” he said. “You can’t move forward without trust, and our residents don’t want to be policed by people they don’t trust. We need to work together to build that so they have faith in us and [see] that we do, in fact, care about them.”

Noel March, Maine Community Policing Institute director and a justice studies faculty member, said collaborative relationships of trust and problem-solving are key ingredients of community policing, while the third is organizational change. The philosophy calls for a proactive approach where officers work with people to address issues before they become crimes.

“Sometimes that takes changing the culture of an organization,” he said. “We really want our police not to be apart from the community, but a part of the community.”

The concept isn’t new, but a throwback to officers walking a beat, he said.

For example, in 2003, Bonney was assigned to community policing in Waterville’s south-end neighborhood — a position that was later cut due to funding — and had an office at the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. He surveyed the neighborhood to learn about its biggest troubles, which residents said were juvenile issues.

Bonney visited the teen center on a regular basis, played basketball games with children and people learned his name and who he was, he said. Elements of that policing model still exist, but staffing and limited funding kept the department from fully embracing the philosophy over the years.

The interim chief pointed to Operation HOPE — a program that launched in 2017 and refers Mainers to opioid addiction treatment in Maine and other parts of the country — as an example of community policing in Waterville. People can turn in their drugs at the station without charges, and the program covers expenses.

The program drew inspiration from Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Bonney plans to study the police department’s community impact unit to gain fresh ideas. It could be a natural evolution for Waterville, he said.

Departments in Orono, Portland and Saco have gained attention for their community policing practices and units, March said.

The Maine Community Policing Institute — which opened in 1998, closed several years later because funding was lacking and reopened in 2020 — offers an 18-credit course, or a micro-certificate program, in community policing. Last year, trustees approved an associate’s degree in the subject — the only one in the country, March said.

March is engaging with police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state to promote a community policing challenge, where municipalities or departments sign up for the course.

Noel March is director of the University of Maine at Augusta's Maine Community Policing Institute.
Noel March is director of the University of Maine at Augusta’s Maine Community Policing Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Noel March

Maine Criminal Justice Academy graduates already have 15 credits under their belts, so earning three more to be certified in community policing is compelling, he said. If municipalities apply through the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce for funding and are approved, half of an officer’s tuition could be covered.

The goal is for Maine’s more than 3,000 police officers to be educated on the principles of community policing, March said. Along with Waterville, Rockland’s police department has accepted the challenge, plus Belfast and the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office have expressed interest, he said.

Waterville plans to use the police department’s training budget to get its 24 patrol division officers, who interact most with the public, trained, Bonney said. He also intends to complete the course.

“The officers here know what the goal is,” he said. “This is the philosophy that our elected officials want. This is the philosophy that I believe in wholeheartedly.”

Bonney also expects the strategy will help recruitment, which has been, in part, hampered by negative views of law enforcement.

Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho is a big proponent of community policing.
Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho talks about community policing during a City Council meeting Feb. 7. Credit: Screenshot / The city of Waterville

Waterville’s residents aren’t able to get to know officers from their cruisers, but communication is more natural when they live and spend time walking in neighborhoods, said Mayor Jay Coelho, a staunch advocate for data-driven community policing. This also keeps people with mental health conditions and other struggles from falling through the cracks, he said during a City Council meeting this month.

“We can try to help as many people as we want to, but they have to want to be helped, too,” he said. “This [community policing] brings all of that together.”