ELLSWORTH, Maine — Ellsworth police are wondering why a Washington County sheriff gave the authority of a sheriff’s deputy to a doctor who had not completed the police academy training required by Maine law.
Sheriff Donnie Smith deputized Benjamin Newman, 72, who operates a small practice in Winter Harbor and is contracted as the jail doctor in Washington County. The question of Newman’s qualifications came to light when he was charged with reckless conduct on Dec. 26 after leaving a loaded 9 mm Walther police pistol in the bathroom of the L.L.Bean Outlet in Ellsworth.
In a conversation with police, Newman said he did not have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but produced a Washington County Sheriff’s Office ID card that said he is a “special deputy.”
There’s no indication that Newman ever asserted authority as a regular deputy or acted as a deputy in any way. According to Newman, on the back side of the ID, there is text that states he “is a qualified law enforcement officer of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office” and as such “is authorized to carry a concealed firearm.” Lt. Harold Page of the Ellsworth Police Department verified that language was present on the ID.
That text raised a few eyebrows at the Ellsworth Police Department. Maine’s law prohibiting concealed carry by those without a permit makes exceptions for qualified law enforcement officers, but Newman is a contractor with the county, not an employee of the sheriff’s office.
“I don’t believe he meets the criteria under the [concealed carry] law, the exception that’s made for law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons,” said Ellsworth Police Chief John DeLeo.
Maine law requires training — including firearm qualifications on the range — at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy for all police, sheriff’s deputies and game wardens, but not special deputies. The academy keeps a record of every police officer, sheriff’s deputy and game warden who has qualified in the state. According to Eric Parker, training manager and assistant director at the academy, Newman’s name is not on the list.
While you don’t have to be a qualified officer to receive a sheriff’s office ID — civil employees also get IDs, for example — Parker said whatever identification is distributed is supposed to make clear whether the bearer is a law enforcement officer or simply a civil employee. Newman, a contractor with the county, is neither.
“It should not give any indication that he is a law enforcement officer, obviously,” Parker said.
Newman said Friday that he didn’t ask to be deputized and was unsure why he was given the ID, but said he figured it had to do with his previous employment as a deputy in Seminole County, Fla., and his 40-year service in the U.S. Navy.
“I am not a qualified law enforcement officer in Maine, but it didn’t ring any bells because, quite frankly, I didn’t read it,” Newman said in an interview. “It was something [Smith] did, and I was grateful he had the confidence.”
Smith on Friday defended his choice to deputize Newman. He said the doctor needs the ID to access inmates at the jail, and said he didn’t know the doctor had used it as license to carry a concealed weapon.
“I can deputize anybody I want to, at any time I want to,” Smith said. “He is a special deputy, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the right to carry a concealed firearm.”
Smith made that assertion despite the fact that Newman’s ID card calls him a “qualified law enforcement officer” with the “right to carry a concealed firearm.” The sheriff drew a distinction between “deputies” and “special deputies” and said he had no knowledge of Newman using the ID in place of a concealed carry permit.
Maine law allows sheriffs to name anyone 18 or older as a “special deputy,” but stipulates they may only be activated in times of war or declared emergencies. Newman’s ID is valid until an expiration date of Nov. 19, 2016.
It is unclear why Newman’s ID presents him as a qualified officer if he was only meant to be a special deputy. Efforts by the Bangor Daily News to get clarification from Smith and Newman have been unsuccessful because after initial interviews both men have refused to speak with a reporter.
Other law enforcement officials are confused by Smith’s “special deputy” commission.
In Hancock County, Chief Deputy Richard Bishop said that his office has only full-time and part-time deputies (who also must qualify at the academy) and civil deputies, who have the authority to serve paperwork but not the power of arrest or the right to carry a concealed weapon. His description of a civil deputy matches the state’s definition of a special deputy.
“We don’t have special deputies,” he said. “I’ve never even heard of that. All our guys are certified through the academy.”
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, said Friday that he is still trying to work out all the details of Newman’s special deputy commission, but said he had full confidence in the sheriff.
“It does seem odd to me, but I’d have to defer to the sheriff to explain it,” he said. “It’s his office that gives these credentials, but as commissioners, we’re as interested as anyone to see how this took place.”
Glenn Ross, Penobscot County sheriff and president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, said questions about sheriffs following protocol are ultimately for the voters to decide. Ultimately, a sheriff is accountable only to residents in his or her county and the governor, who has the authority to remove a sheriff under extenuating circumstances.
“Politically, this could be a problem, but I don’t know whether the governor would take a position about a person being trained or not,” he said Wednesday. Ross also said ensuring appointed deputies are qualified is among the most important duties a sheriff has while in office.
“Once you give someone this authority, you’re giving them the broadest authority to make arrests, use deadly force,” he said. “You want to be doing that only if they have the training they need to have. That’s a paramount responsibility of a sheriff.”
Newman works only a handful of hours per week at the jail, Smith said. He will not be reprimanded for the reckless conduct charge, the sheriff said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.