Police forces cooperate as budgets get squeezed

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 7:23 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With police budgets across the state being cut and positions frozen to save money — but no shortage of accidents and crimes — law enforcement agencies say it can take longer to get a response even as they step up efforts to cooperate.

“We all are learning to do things differently,” said Col. Pat Fleming, chief of the Maine State Police.

Many traditional areas of focus have been blurred as all agencies scramble to provide assistance and investigate crimes, he said.

“The interstate has traditionally been the domain of the state police,” Fleming said, “But there are cases when our troopers are called off the interstate, or may be 50 miles away on the interstate, but there may be a local police officer available. When there is an emergency, regardless of the uniform, officers step up and help.”

Under the governor’s proposed budget, four unfilled state trooper positions will stay unfilled for the remainder of the two-year budget. Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan said fewer troopers, deputy sheriffs and local police may mean longer response times for accidents and for the investigation of crimes.

“We are all trying to best manage the limited resources we have,” she said, “but you can’t have a trooper or deputy or police officer in two places at once. Can’t do it.”

Jordan said law enforcement agencies at all levels are trying to get federal grants to help with budgets. She said grants for specific policing efforts, for example, have allowed for special multijurisdictional details for speed enforcement and anti-drunken driving efforts.

“We were not successful getting a COPS [Community Oriented Policing Services] grant, but several local agencies were,” she said. “It all helps.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said that with budget cuts affecting all agencies, cooperation is even more important. He said police have always had to set priorities and respond to the most urgent calls first but with the budget cuts at agencies across the state, the situation has become more difficult.

“You do the best you can and that is all you can do,” he said. “I think everybody is trying as hard as they can.”

Schwartz said the chiefs spend considerable time at every meeting discussing further ways to cooperate among one another and other law enforcement agencies.

Doug Bracey, York police chief, said all agencies have been affected directly or indirectly by budget cuts and they have to cooperate to meet their goal of protecting the public while staying within their own budgets.

“We try to do things more efficiently by looking at regionalized efforts,” he said, “whether it be in OUI enforcement details or seat belt details or OAS [operating after suspension] details or things like that.”

Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said every sheriff is scrambling to meet obligations as budget cuts reduce the number of deputies and often the amount of patrol time. He said in addition to cooperation on specific enforcement details, there has been increased cooperation and coordination in the training needs of law enforcement.

“The federal grants have helped a lot with equipment,” he said. “I think everybody has been helped by grants for equipment like communications equipment, and some have been lucky enough to get cruisers paid for by grants.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said even with cooperative efforts, budget cuts mean fewer police patrolling and slower responses for lower-priority crimes. He said sex crimes and other crimes against people have the top priority and that means traffic enforcement and property crimes will have longer response times.

“Kennebec County has 890 square miles, and we share that with the state police,” he said. “Rather than having four patrolmen out there, we have two or three, and they are covering larger areas and obviously not being able to respond as they would like to and follow up on the complaints as they would like to.”

Liberty rejected the suggestion by some that taxes should be increased to prevent reductions in law enforcement efforts.

“A lot of people are still unemployed there,” he said. “We need to get by as best we can with the tax dollars we have now.”

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