Washington County is struggling to boost its police forces as drug violence explodes Down East.
Machias Police Chief Keith Mercier exits the town office after a meeting with Town Manager Bill Kitchen. Mercier was hired in the fall of 2021 to rebuild the department and started on the job three days before a drug-gang shooting left a teenager dead on High Street in Machias. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Trevor Hold lives in Pembroke less than three miles away from where a suspected drug dealer was shot and killed in February 2022 in her home on Leighton Point Road.

He said it has been easy at times to tell when drug dealers are doing business near his home. Sometimes they would stop near his house in a dirt parking area by the shore that he can see from his backyard. Another car would pull up. After a quick, quiet exchange, the drivers would head out in different directions.

He had grown accustomed to 10- or 15-minute response times from police, “but I don’t really expect that anymore.”

Hold’s experience underscores what officials say has become an acute problem in Down East Maine.

Trevor Hold no longer expects a police response when he suspects drug deals near his Washington County home.
Trevor Hold can see drug activity happening through the woods behind his Pembroke home. Hold lives just a short distance from where a fatal drug-related shooting happened in 2022 on Leighton Point Road. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Washington County has become a flashpoint for drugs and violence as criminal gangs from out of state have set up shop in the small towns in Maine’s rural eastern edge. At the same time, the police agencies that patrol villages and backroads have struggled with reduced funding and, for those that have positions to fill, finding qualified candidates to take the jobs.

The dilemma has pitted public safety against the realities of raising taxes in a part of the state that long has been one of the poorest and least populated in Maine.

Poverty and drugs are not new problems for Washington County, and the intersection of the two can be found in many communities nationwide, but violence and associated gang activity have risen markedly in the county in the past few years.

There is wider recognition now in Washington County, and nationwide, that treatment and prevention are key parts to addressing substance use, according to people interviewed for this story. But officials worry that offering services such as counseling and criminal justice programs specifically geared toward people addicted to drugs won’t solve the problem if there are fewer police in communities to confront it head-on.

Last year, Maine State Police cut back on its patrol staffing for Washington County and other rurals parts of Maine, prompting Sheriff Barry Curtis to seek funding for four new deputy positions, which would have boosted his staff by 33 percent.

Washington County officials gave him funding for only one. It brought his patrol staff to 13 officers. He knows there are limits to how much in taxes county residents can afford, but said his agency is usually the first to be called when violence breaks out.

“We’ve got all these police departments that are struggling,” the sheriff said. “But it falls to me. Someone’s got to do it.”

With the state police no longer patrolling rural Washington County, Sheriff Barry Curtis has struggled to secure funding to boost his force.
To try to stem violent crime, Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis asked for funding to create and fill four additional patrol deputy positions, which would have brought his roster to 16 officers, but he only got one. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

From 2008 through 2016, Washington County had a relatively low homicide rate, accounting for 2 percent of the murders and non-vehicular manslaughters statewide. Only two people were murdered in the county over those eight years when, in January 2008, a Machias man shot and killed two people in an act of domestic violence in Marshfield.

Since early 2017, the rate of killings in Washington County has jumped to double digits. Violent acts in Big Lake Township, Cherryfield, Jonesboro, Lubec, Machias, Marshfield, Pembroke, Perry, Robbinston and Whitneyville have left 14 people dead over the past six years, accounting for 10 percent of homicides statewide.

The years 2020 and 2022 were particularly deadly in Washington County, with four people and six people killed, respectively. The tally in each of those years accounted for 20 percent of homicides statewide, even though the county has only 2 percent of Maine’s population.

The killings have reflected a rise in violent crime in general. In 2019, Washington County had Maine’s third-highest violent crime rate, tied with York County, and in 2020 it was second behind Androscoggin County. The state has not released general crime statistics for 2022.

And drugs have played a role, according to police. Of those 14 killings, most of which were from gunshots, three directly involved drug dealers while disputes over narcotics were involved in two others. Fifteen people, including five from out of state, have been charged with murder in these deaths.

The restructuring of state police, which led to fewer cops patrolling rural areas, is coming at a bad time, Curtis said. State police will send detectives to investigate major crimes in the area, he said, but his 13 deputies are the primary law enforcement officers for Washington County’s 2,500 square miles.

“We know the state police are struggling, but this restructuring they did didn’t do Washington County any good at all,” the sheriff said.

Even having more drug enforcement agents would help, he said. Those positions are funded separately from state police within the Department of Public Safety, but there are only two based in Washington County, half as many as Curtis said there should be.

Lt. Michael Johnson, who oversees state police patrols in eastern Maine, declined to specify how many vacancies he has or its effect on policing. He said there are fewer patrol troopers after the restructuring.

With the restructuring, two state police field troops — Troop E, which covered Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, and Troop J, which covered Hancock and Washington counties — last year were combined into the Bangor-based Northern Field Troop, which covers an area roughly from Greenville to Lubec, a distance of nearly 200 miles.

There are multiple factors why police departments nationwide have difficulty recruiting and keeping officers, Johnson said. Training requirements have increased, which has contributed to the cost of maintaining police forces, and calls are more time-consuming than they used to be.

The job, which has always had its dangers, also has come under greater public scrutiny and criticism in recent years amid a national debate over police shootings of Black people, which has depressed morale and recruitment.

“I’ve seen a huge change in my career in law enforcement,” Johnson said. “We’ve become busier and more is being asked of us. We’re asking more of our troopers, police officers and deputy sheriffs than we ever have before.”

The scene of a 2022 fatal drug-related shooting is seen on Leighton Point Road in Pembroke. Since 2017, violent crimes in Washington County have left 13 people dead, most of them from gunshots. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Chris Gardner, a longtime Washington County commissioner who also works part time as a police officer in Eastport, acknowledged that the issue of drugs and crime is multifaceted, and that treatment and prevention are necessary to address the harm that addiction can cause. But law enforcement is a crucial piece of the puzzle, he said, and Washington County can only raise so much money to fund the sheriff’s department.

“We are doing everything we can at the localized level,” Gardner said. “We don’t have time to play politics.”

For Michael Ellis, the city manager of Calais and a member of the county’s budget committee, politics is not the reason he opposed Curtis’ request to fund four more new deputy positions this year. It’s an economic issue.

Calais, the largest municipality in Washington County, has struggled to retain officers in its own police department, which consists of a chief and four other officers — two of which are vacant. Maintaining funding for the city’s police department is a priority for the elected council, he said.

“There’s only so much money,” Ellis said. “The more the county tries to raise, the less we have in our coffers. We haven’t been at full strength for a couple of years now.”

Ellis said the reduction in the state police in the county is a “concern,” but he doesn’t think the automatic response should be to significantly beef up the sheriff’s department. The degree to which police departments are funded has to be balanced against what taxpayers can afford.

For a time in summer and fall 2021, Machias didn’t have police. The sheriff’s office, which is based in Machias, picked up patrol coverage of the Washington County seat for a few months after the town’s police chief and one full-time officer resigned.

Keith Mercier, a veteran law enforcement officer from Penobscot County, was tasked with rebuilding the department almost from scratch when he was hired as chief. But his immediate attention was diverted when, three days after he started, a teenage drug dealer from New York was gunned down on High Street.

Washington County is struggling to boost its police forces as drug violence explodes Down East.
A fatal drug-related shooting occurred on Nov. 4, 2021 on High Street in Machias, a residential neighborhood. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Since then, however, he’s hired two full-time officers, and has retained or hired four more part-timers.

“Ideally, I think the town could use six to eight full-time officers,” Mercier said. “The hiring pool is non-existent in this county.”

The town has raised its starting pay to be consistent with other Washington County departments, and has boosted its annual training budget by $6,000. But, like other places along the coast, housing prices have skyrocketed in the past three years, making it hard to recruit officers from outside the area.

Hold, the Pembroke communications technician, said he supports the Washington County sheriff’s desire to hire more deputies but acknowledged that police departments have to be realistic about how many positions they can fill. For now, he and his wife are carrying firearms.

“You wouldn’t dare not to,” Hold said. “You have to learn how to protect yourself.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....