The Oxford County Sheriff’s Office in South Paris, Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

When police pin a badge to their uniform, issue tickets or clasp handcuffs around someone’s wrists, their power stems from a piece of paper: a certificate earned by completing the required training. If they are not certified, they are not law enforcement officers.

In the wake of school shootings around the country, more schools nationally have brought in police officers to try to help keep students safe. In 2018, Oxford County commissioners approved hiring men armed with guns and wearing badges to work as school resource officers in local schools. School resource officers are supposed to be law enforcement officials vested with the power to make arrests, according to Maine law.

But two men the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office hired, including a commissioner’s brother, weren’t actually certified as police. One went nearly four years before getting certified. The other is still not certified.

The school districts requested certified law enforcement officers: Their signed contracts with the sheriff’s office said they would receive certified officers capable of carrying out any duties customarily performed by law enforcement.

And the districts, Hiram-based School Administrative District 55 and Rumford-based Regional School Unit 10, were obligated to pay $42,086 per deputy to the sheriff’s office for this school year alone, under  contracts signed by Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright and Commissioner Timothy Turner.

But unknown to the schools, what they received over the last four years does not appear to be what they paid for. 

What’s more, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office knew in March 2021 the exact steps to take to ensure it had certified law enforcement officers in area schools, according to an email laying out the process from a Maine Criminal Justice Academy training coordinator to Chief Deputy James Urquhart. Despite this, the sheriff and the two uncertified men hired as school resource officers said they believed they had more time to complete their credentialing than they actually did.

It is disturbing that the agency did not ensure its officers were certified, said one national expert on school resource officers about the ordeal, which is the latest conflict for a sheriff’s office that has seen two internal investigations into different sheriffs in recent years.

One of the men hired as a school resource officer, Michael Kaspereen, is still not certified as a law enforcement officer, according to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains police candidates and issues certificates. Kaspereen is primarily assigned to Sacopee Valley Middle School in Hiram, and he also covers Sacopee Valley Elementary School and the central office, according to the contract.

The other, Percy Turner, who is Commissioner Turner’s brother, completed his required academy testing in August 2022, nearly four years after starting work, and is now certified. He covers Buckfield Junior-Senior High School and Hartford-Sumner Elementary School in Sumner.

While both Kaspereen and Percy Turner retired after careers in law enforcement, their experience does not prevent them from having to maintain a current certification, according to the academy. Turner had been out of the force for about five years before being hired to work as a school resource officer. Kaspereen had been out for eight. Once an officer is away for two years, they must become recertified to make sure they are up to date on new laws and practices.

“If they’re not certified, then they don’t have the powers of arrest,” said Jack Peck, the director of the academy. “If they are not certified, they should not be carrying a gun or wearing a uniform.”

Sheriff’s office records obtained through a public records request show Turner and Kaspereen were issued Glock pistols in June 2020.

Vassalboro, Maine — September 18, 2020 — Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

Getting recertified is typically a faster process for people who have been police officers in the past than for those with no law enforcement background receiving their initial certification. People who are recertifying have to take Law Enforcement Pre-Service Phase I, a self-paced, online course, and then pass the Phase I exam, either in-person at the academy or proctored online at their agency, said E. Donald Finnegan, training coordinator at the academy.

After completing Phase I, full-time officers who are recertifying have two options. They can pass the Phase II exam to receive a provisional full-time certification, so they can begin working. If they choose this option, they have up to six months to work before they have to pass the final full-time law enforcement certification exam. Or upon completing the Phase I exam, they can skip the Phase II test and immediately take the final exam.

Kaspereen took the Phase I exam on March 18, 2022, but he did not complete any other required steps, Finnegan said.

The academy also requires documentation of officers’ employment. That’s because, even if someone is certified as an officer, they have to be employed by a law enforcement agency to carry out police duties. Maine law requires agency heads to notify the academy within 30 days of a new hire. But the academy does not have the required employment records for Kaspereen.

Every year police agencies send lists of their employed officers to the academy, but the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office has not reported Turner or Kaspereen on those reports in recent years, Finnegan said.

While it does not have a notice of employment for Kaspereen, it recently discovered that one had been submitted for Turner in August. It was signed by Wainwright and back dated Turner’s start date to November 2019. (Turner actually started in November 2018, however, according to the contract and Oxford County’s administrative office.)

When reached by phone, neither RSU 10 Superintendent Deb Alden nor SAD 55 Superintendent Carl Landry said they had known their school resource officers were not actually law enforcement.

“He has done an excellent job for us,” Alden said about Turner. “We’ve had a very safe environment with his help … I will certainly look into it.”

Commissioner Tim Turner also said he had not known that Percy Turner and Kaspereen were not certified when the commissioners approved their hire in November 2018 because checking their status is the sheriff’s responsibility. He abstained from the vote to hire his brother.

He described Kaspereen, who retired in 2010 after 25 years with the Maine State Police, as a “top-notch” officer and said his current lack of certification is “a minor concern. I just want to make sure he gets his training in as fast as he can.”

At the same time, “if we received a formal complaint we’d probably have to hire an investigator to look into it to see if it was negligence or an oversight, or what was it,” Tim Turner said.

Oxford County has ordered independent investigations before. This month it concluded its handling of a $15,600 independent, internal investigation into how the sheriff treated two deputies after he asked one to show leniency in a traffic violation case.

Percy Turner and Kaspereen’s time working in the schools has spanned two sheriffs. Former Sheriff James Theriault hired them in 2018, and the current sheriff, Wainwright, has renewed contracts with the school districts since then.

Wainwright, Turner and Kaspereen expressed confusion about what the recertification process entailed and whether they were certified or not.

After playing frisbee with students on the athletic fields behind Buckfield Junior-Senior High School on the afternoon of May 11, Turner said he hadn’t originally intended to stay in the role as long as he has but discovered he loves it. Turner spent 29 years with the state police and another eight years as a part-time officer with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, separating from them in 2013, before coming back to be a school resource officer.

When they were hired in 2018, “as far as we knew, we were certified,” Turner said. Looking back now, he acknowledged he probably wasn’t.

He and Kaspereen each said separately that a proctor at the academy told them they had two years — not six months — once they completed the Phase II exam to take the final test.

“When we were finished with the PHASE II exam the Proctor asked us if we wanted to take the final full time exam at that time. We both declined. I asked him how long do I have to take the final exam?  The proctor kept saying ‘just come in anytime [and] take it’. I again asked how long? The proctor then told me I had 2 years to take the final exam,” Kaspereen wrote in an email. “Apparently that info was wrong.”

Finnegan, with the academy, pointed out that Kaspereen did not actually take the Phase II exam. The only exam he took, on March 18, 2022, was to pass Phase I.

Regardless, there is no two-year window for police candidates to continue working while they complete additional testing. If people complete Phase I and then let two years go by without completing the remaining steps, they have to repeat Phase I, Finnegan said. But there is no two-year gap between tests where people can work.

Kaspereen disagreed about which exam he took.

“It is most likely [the academy] misplaced the exam or did not enter the results in the database,” Kaspereen wrote.

Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Wainwright

The sheriff was also under the impression there was a two-year grace period.

“My understanding is he has two years from the time they take the Phase I course to complete the rest of it. My understanding was that he has done it,” Wainwright said. The sheriff then said he wanted “to be cautious and pause.”

“I will get back to you and take a look,” he said.

About a week later, Wainwright said the sheriff’s office was working with the academy “to straighten out any clerical errors.”

“I don’t think the story will end up being as sensational as you think it is,” he said in an email. “And as always I won’t comment on any personal matters involving individual deputies at this time.”

As an overseer of Maine police, it is possible for the academy to discipline someone for working as a police officer without a valid certification, Finnegan said. All investigations into alleged misconduct are confidential, however, so he could not say whether there is currently an investigation or not.

Kaspereen said there was an investigation, however.

“Apparently there is now an internal investigation ongoing at the MCJA and I will no longer comment,” he said in an email.

It is not only worrying that people were working as officers without being certified to do so but that they thought they were actually law enforcement, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school resource officers, often called SROs. Both Turner and Kaspereen have taken the organization’s training, they said.

“It is disturbing. It is really disturbing that someone would think they were a law enforcement officer,” Canady said. “I’m not trying to be critical, but that is not normal.”

If someone claims to be a school resource officer but is not law enforcement, “they’re not an SRO. It’s as simple as that,” he said, adding that he had never heard of it happening before. “This is a perplexing situation, kind of a wild moment if you will.”

It is not yet clear if Kaspereen or Turner carried out the tasks of police while they were not certified. Alden, the RSU 10 superintendent, said Turner had not arrested, summonsed or ticketed people since he joined.

The superintendent for SAD 55, Landry, did not answer a question about whether Kaspereen had arrested anyone.

The movement in Maine is for school resource officers to become more specialized. Two years ago the academy started a voluntary 40-hour training program specifically for school resource officers.

“Young people are not little adults. They are physically and mentally and developmentally different, and therefore the approach to dealing with a young person needs to be taught,” said Jonathan Shapiro, director of the Maine School Safety Center at the Maine Department of Education, one of the organizations that helped develop the training.

“It’s the most unique assignment. They’ve got to be highly skilled in all areas of their job,” Canady said. “When we get the wrong people in a role, it can end in a bit of a disaster.”

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...