LIMESTONE, Maine — Limestone’s police department will close permanently later this spring.
It’s the town’s second municipal closure in a week due to lack of staff. After shutting down temporarily, the town office is limping along with a former clerk pitching in. The Select Board voted unanimously Wednesday to proceed with closing the police department, leaving the duties to county and state law enforcement.
Amidst a nationwide shortage of police officers, small towns in Aroostook have been especially vulnerable. Van Buren dismantled its department in 2021, leaving Aroostook sheriff’s deputies and state police responsible for coverage in their already large territory — from Mars Hill to Madawaska. Now, despite increasing wages and benefits, Limestone faces the same fate.
Residents will vote in a referendum later this spring on the fate of the police department. If voters are in favor, the department will close soon after the referendum, interim Town Manager Walt Elliot said.
Limestone has always been a small department, but after the death of former chief Stacey Mahan in 2021, officers began leaving and haven’t returned. When interim Chief Jesse Cormier was hired in September 2022, he hoped to find a permanent chief and fully staff the department again.
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But that has not happened. Cormier, also a police sergeant in Fort Fairfield, hired only two full-time officers, but both left after only a few months due to unexpected health issues.
“To be honest, we only had full coverage in the town for two months,” Cormier said.
The issue is staffing, he said. Though residents increased the chief and officer salaries and approved 80 percent health insurance coverage for officers, that has not been enough to persuade applicants from choosing other departments.
Aroostook’s larger departments in Presque Isle and Caribou usually entice officers with more benefits, even if the wages are lower, Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen said.
“Your officer wages are actually $3 more than Caribou,” Gillen told the crowd of residents in Limestone Community School’s auditorium. “But because [Caribou and Presque Isle] offer the whole package, a town like Limestone can’t compete.”
For Limestone, losing the police department is another recent blow to local services. Just a week before, the town office reopened for reduced hours following the departure of key staff members.
Cormier said he will assist town officials as they close up the department and communicate with the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and Maine State Police about future coverage.
With no full-time officers, Limestone has seen increased coverage from sheriff’s deputies and state troopers. Now, Gillen and state police Lt. Brian Harris will develop a schedule to ensure that the town gets weekly coverage, though it will not be 24/7.
Gillen and Harris have already divided towns without their own police departments into monthly “zones.” That means Gillen designates his deputies to certain towns for one month and then he swaps with Harris the next month.
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Most residents with non-emergency calls will not see an immediate response, Harris said. But if a dire emergency arises, like a string of robberies or violent threats made toward residents, the state police or the sheriff’s office will send its closest officer and coordinate a larger response together, he said.
“One of our biggest strengths is our ability to work together. There are no turf wars,” Harris said. “We will drop everything we’re doing and get to Limestone.”
During an informal straw poll, most residents supported disbanding the police department given the ongoing staffing issues.
Paul Durepo praised Cormier and the Select Board for their previous efforts to keep a police department in Limestone.
“They’ve done everything they could,” Durepo said.
The Select Board unanimously passed the motion to disband the police department. Select Board member Fred Pelletier abstained due to his service as a reserve police officer.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when the Limestone Police Department will close.