WISCASSET, Maine — The law enforcement community and people across Lincoln County are mourning the death of William C. Carter, whose 37 years as sheriff ranks as one of the longest, if not the longest, in the state’s history.
Carter, 72, died early Wednesday morning at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Though his law enforcement career ended when he retired in 2002, evidence of his influence and accomplishments are still obvious today, according to current Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, who worked under Carter for more than a decade.
“Bill was here from the time this agency had its first police car to the time we began putting mobile data equipment in our cruisers,” said Brackett. “He always worked hard to make sure that his staff had the best training and equipment out there. He was a leader in that respect.”
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Carter started his law enforcement career for the Damariscotta Police Department in 1962 and rose to the rank of chief within three years. In 1964, at age 26, he was the youngest person ever elected sheriff in the state’s history. He retired after 37 years at that post, which is the longest tenure in the agency’s 250-year history and probably the longest in Maine history, according to Brackett and Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who is the Maine Sheriffs’ Association’s president.
Brackett said Carter was a tall, imposing man who was seldom seen in public without a coat and tie.
“If you had a picture of a sheriff in your mind, that’s Sheriff Carter,” said Brackett. “When I was first coming into this agency when I first got hired, he gave me the lecture about what he expected from his deputies, which was to keep yourself looking good and keeping your hat on at all times. He was very particular about that.”
Despite his imposing appearance, Carter was known for his soft heart for both colleagues and criminals. He was a pioneer when it came to instituting programs in the county jail for drug and alcohol treatment, anger management and others.
“Bill was a progressive sheriff in many respects,” said Brackett.
Brian Lawrence worked under Carter for 30 years, eventually as the department’s chief deputy.
“When I went to work for Bill in 1971, the sheriff’s department was almost like a nonentity,” he said. Carter purchased the county’s first cruiser and enrolled Lawrence and others in the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s first class.
“When I started working for him, we had one-and-a-half deputies,” said Lawrence. “When Bill retired, we had more than 20 people in the jail and 15 deputies. He really grew the sheriff’s department into a professional organization.”
Carter was a lifetime member of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and had served as president of both the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and the New England Association of Chiefs of Police. According to a document written by Carter about his career in 1985, dispatcher calls and complaints were relayed directly to his home. Lawrence said the practical effect of that was that the sheriff was prone to showing up anywhere at any time.
“In the early days, we didn’t have anyone for backup at 1 a.m.,” said Lawrence. “Whether I was up in Somerville or down in Bristol, I can’t tell you how many times I’d do a traffic stop and I [would] turn around and there sitting down the road was Bill Carter. That’s the best thing I can say about the man.”
Lawrence said that at the time of Carter’s retirement after 37 years of successful elections for the sheriff’s position, Carter had been in the post longer than any other Maine sheriff.
Among Carter’s many initiatives was the formation of a camp check program which required deputies to physically check camps and seasonal cottages, even if it meant using snowshoes. Between 1965 and 1970, the average number of prisoners in the county jail doubled from 165 to 330. With help from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in 1971, Carter began 24-hour-a-day patrols throughout the program and installed a radio base station at the county courthouse. That system remains in use today by multiple agencies.
In the mid-1970s, Carter started Project Theft Guard and a neighborhood watch program to combat burglaries. Calls for service and inmates in the jail continued to rise. The county communications center, which by then was dispatching for local police and ambulance services, handled more than 65,000 calls in 1975. In 1977, a contract deputy was hired to work full time on Southport Island, which according to Carter’s writings was a first in Maine island communities. Other programs started by Carter included a bicycle safety program, a Blue Light community policing program, a child safety program and a canine program.
“During the past 20 years, I have led my department, and by example other departments, one large step at a time,” wrote Carter in 1985. “I can remember all this history because I lived it and actually helped make it.”
Behind the badge and all of Carter’s accomplishments, though, was a man who truly cared for everyone with whom he came into contact.
“You didn’t feel any pressure or stress with him, but you knew he was always about business,” said Lawrence. “He was just comfortable to be around.”