AUGUSTA, Maine — Law enforcement at every level has felt the impact of budget cuts in this recession, but police officials say that squeeze has resulted in greater cooperation and innovation throughout the state.
“I don’t know a sheriff that is not scrambling,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association. “We are all trying to do things differently and still do what we need to do.”
He said all of law enforcement is struggling to continue to provide the same level of enforcement with fewer dollars, and he acknowledged that is not always possible. He said all agencies have achieved some success through increased cooperation and coordination in training needs.
“We have what we call our traveling road show along with the sheriffs,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, referring to training sessions that are held in several locations. “It provides the updated training police officers need every year.”
He said the training sessions, which also are used by the Maine State Police, are saving the agencies money, especially in the greater use of online training for some of the updates.
“There are a lot of areas where we have to have training every year,” Brackett said. “We have had significant savings with that training online with less overtime and travel costs.”
He said that every year there are changes in laws and court interpretation of laws and all police need updated training to keep pace with changes. In addition, he said, there are requirements such as firearms proficiency that officers must train for. All have costs.
“Troopers can do the online training in the cruisers,” said Col. Patrick Fleming, chief of the Maine State Police. “We have the data terminals in the cruisers and that has saved a lot of time with the ability to access information and do the paperwork that used to mean traveling back to a barracks to get it done.”
He said increased technology also has helped to improve cooperation between police agencies. He said that with budget cuts affecting all agencies, cooperation is even more important.
“The interstate has traditionally been the domain of the state police, but there are cases where our troopers are called off the interstate, or might be 50 miles away on the interstate,” he said. “When there is an emergency, regardless of what color uniform, the officers step up.”
Schwartz said local agencies often work together to address a specific crime problem, such as a drug investigation or a serial burglar. He said there also are joint efforts with troopers or deputy sheriffs in both speed enforcement and drunken driving patrols.
“Local police agencies are always working together, trying to share resources where they can, and of course drug investigations are one we often see,” he said.
Sheriff Brackett agreed, saying that while there are no formal cooperative agreements between all of the sheriffs and the state police, there is close cooperation between the patrol troopers and the patrol deputies.
“When somebody needs help, the other agency jumps in and gets the job done,” he said. “You know, people don’t care what uniform the officer is wearing, they want help.”
But even with the cooperative efforts, law enforcement officials say the budget cuts have taken a toll on the ability of police to respond to calls.
“You do the best you can and that is all you can do,” Schwartz said. “There are going to be police calls that are neglected.”
He said police have to set priorities and respond to the most urgent calls first, and that means the response to some calls is delayed. He said police have always had to set priorities, responding to the most urgent cases first, but with budget cuts, the situation has become more difficult.
“It’s why cooperation is so important,” Fleming said. “It is a big state and it takes time to respond, and we all have to work together.”
Brackett said there is some hope the Recovery Act will help with the personnel needs of law enforcement, in Maine and across the country, but he doubts it will be enough.
“I think every sheriff has a request in, but there is about a billion dollars for the program for the whole country,” he said. “I think there is something like $7 billion in requests.”
Maine law enforcement agencies are waiting to hear which ones will get some help under the Recovery Act.