HOULTON, Maine — Motivated by a desire to ease operations within his own department and protect fellow police officers, Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin successfully secured authority from the Town Council earlier this week to allow his officers to have statewide arrest powers.
The privilege, which is one that towns are allowed to grant under state law, only extends to Maine Criminal Justice Academy certified police officers. The certification comes after an extensive 18-week law enforcement training program.
The request took place during a brief meeting on Monday evening. Although one councilor had questions about the proposal, the other members believed it would benefit the department.
Asselin told the council that he had been considering the request for some time. Prior to his request being granted, HPD officers could only arrest individuals in Houlton. If an individual committed a crime in Houlton but lived in New Limerick, the HPD investigator had to ask someone from Maine State Police or Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department to come with him to make the arrest. The department’s detective also can’t leave the town limits to conduct an investigation without having a trooper or deputy with him.
“That is not always easy to coordinate,” Town Manager Doug Hazlett said during the meeting.
The chief told councilors that the department is sometimes called upon to assist troopers, deputies or U.S. Border Patrol agents in nearby towns such as Littleton or Hodgdon. For example, if an HPD officer responded to such a call for assistance with a domestic violence related crime and saw one individual assault another, the officer could help the responding officer, but he could not arrest the perpetrator without having to request permission from the responding officer.
“They would be acting like a citizen and making a citizens arrest,” Asselin explained Wednesday. “During such a scenario, they would basically be yelling back and forth with the responding officer to try and coordinate the arrest. That isn’t easy when a situation is occurring and things could escalate violently.”
Asselin said that he also asked councilors to grant the request so that his officers can be guaranteed the same legal rights and protections while performing their duties outside of the town as when they are in their own jurisdiction. Now that the council has acted, officers who are assisting officers outside the town will be guaranteed qualified immunity, which protects public officials from being sued for damages unless they violate “clearly established” law. The qualified immunity aims to protect civil servants from the fear of litigation in performing discretionary functions entrusted to them by law, according to legal sources.
The chief also stressed that Houlton officers would only be going in to neighboring communities if there was an emergency.
“We are just here if [other agencies] need assistance,” Asselin told councilors. “This is for serious situations like a domestic violence case or a bad accident. I want them to be able to call on the Houlton Police Department. This isn’t for little harassment calls or something of that nature.”
Councilor Mike Jenkins had some concerns about expanding the arrest powers. He asked the chief if he had contacted town officials and managers in nearby communities to see how they felt about the matter. He wondered if some officials would take issue with a police officer from another community showing up in their town to arrest someone.
Asselin said that he hadn’t contacted any town officials prior to the meeting.
Jenkins asked the chief if he was making the request in light of budget cuts that have impacted the state police.
Asselin said he would have made the request no matter what the budget or manpower situation. He said that his No. 1 concern was protecting his officers when they are working in town or when they are called to assist another law enforcement officer on an emergency basis.
Asselin said that the law regarding statewide arrest authority has been around for 10 or 15 years and has been used by communities in southern Maine.
The motion was approved after ten minutes of discussion by the council.