CARIBOU, Maine — For most people, it’s hard to imagine being in the same career for 40 years. But for Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan, who recently celebrated his 40th year with the CPD, law enforcement has been more than a career; it’s been a way of life.
Gahagan comes from a long line of civil servants. His father Arnold worked more than 40 years for the city of Caribou and retired as the fire chief. His older brother Arnie was a detective for the state police and is now currently a victims’ advocate; his younger brother Danny is a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent; and his sister Patti is married to a retired fire chief in Limestone and Fort Fairfield.
Despite his family background, Gahagan did not begin his professional life with the goal of becoming a police officer.
“When I graduated from high school, I had ambitions to be a teacher. My first year of college was at Fort Kent in the teaching program,” Gahagan said.
He got his first job at Aroostook Trust Bank, which was on Bennett Drive, and was the only male teller at the time. After working there for a year and going to college at night, Gahagan went to work for the newly opened McDonald’s as a manager. When a position became open at the Caribou Police Department, Gahagan applied and was hired by then Police Chief Rufus Bernard.
“I was the low person on the totem pole. For the first six months, I worked midnight shift. It paid $120 a week, which figures out to about $2.83 an hour,” Gahagan said.
At the time, Gahagan, his wife Anne and their children lived in a trailer on his brother’s property. Gahagan began his job in August, but did not attend the police academy until January. He rode with a senior patrol officer for all of a week before he was put out on a beat by himself.
“I had no previous training, but it may have been a little easier for me because I had ridden with my state trooper brother in Machias,” Gahagan said.
He changed his major in college to criminal justice and was able to get his education paid for by the Law Enforcement Assistance Program, as long as he committed to remaining in law enforcement.
“I think I’ve fulfilled my obligation,” Gahagan quipped.
Back in the early ‘70s, when Gahagan got his first beat, the officers patrolled the downtown area on foot.
“When I first started, one of our shifts was walking downtown. We interacted with the merchants. We walked through the stores. I thought it was a great patrol. I could check to see what was on sale. But it was the interaction with people that was great,” Gahagan said.
And communication with the station was a bit more primitive in those days.
“I remember they had a light pole down by Lupo’s. They would switch the light so the guy on the beat would know to call or come back. It took me a while to figure out what that meant. I thought there was something wrong with the light,” Gahagan jokes.
However, being a beat officer was not as simple as perusing the stores and watching for a light pole to blink off and on.
“Oh, yeah, I have been shot at,” Gahagan said, referring to a case early in his career. “It was 5 a.m., we got a call from a gun shop that 40 or 50 guns had been stolen and a vehicle was stolen on Roberts Street. I knew the area because that’s where I grew up. It was two boys who stole the guns. They ran down into a field. One of them turned around and leveled a .30-30 at us and fired. We called another car and caught them within a matter of an hour or so.”
The suspects, both juveniles, were arrested, but were not convicted of firing at the officers.
“The judge asked if I heard the whiz of the bullet,” Gahagan explained. “I said no, but I heard the bang of the gun. The judge determined that he must have fired in the air and sent the kid away for truancy.”
The man who shot at Gahagan is still in the area and he sees him every once in a while.
“He went away and had some struggles growing up, but he did turn his life around and is more productive these days,” Gahagan said.
Along with transportation and communication, Gahagan has seen numerous significant changes in his profession over the course of 40 years, especially in technology.
“Our reports used to be typed out on two sheets of paper with carbon in between them. With computers and word processing now, we have much more detailed reports.”
But Gahagan doesn’t believe the advances in technology are necessarily all a good thing for police work.
“Technology really hasn’t been a blessing. It hasn’t been easier,” Gahagan said. “It’s more detailed. Our whole job now is doing reports. It’s a hate/love relationship. We used to do a report on one page; now it’s several pages with video, etcetera. But we do have better detailed reports.”
Gahagan also has seen an enormous change in the court system.
“We used to be able to get a decision pretty much within a few days. Now it takes a month, maybe years, for a decision to come through,” he said. “And now, for superior court, it’s two and a half years to get a case in. It’s frustrating not only for us, but for the victim.”
And, once a case does go to court, he said, the way it’s handled is now much different.
“When I first started, when the officer went to court, what the officer was saying was pretty much what happened. Now we have to have cameras in the cars and are moving toward body cameras. Now if the jury doesn’t see it, it’s not necessarily the truth. That’s been a big change not only for the department, but also for budgeting,” Gahagan said. “When I first started, I could carry everything in a little summons book. Now the officers have to have computers and briefcases. Remember, the officer has to make a split decision. Everybody after that has all the time in the world to look at that.”
Gahagan has also seen a shift in overall function of the police department.
“We’ve gone from a reactionary type department to prevention. We have a lot of prevention committees. If we can collaborate with other services and catch it before they start going down that wrong path; it’s a lot better for us economically,” Gahagan said. “A lot of guys specialize in different areas. We don’t have a detective. During the 1970s and ‘80s, we used to have a detective. Now all the officers are trained to handle all their own cases. It brings the department a lot closer. We have a 68 percent clearance rate doing it that way. It involves actually all the officers, so they’re not feeling like, ‘Oh, I get a case and I just turn it off to a detective.’ That’s a pass-off. It may work for some other departments, but for us, this works real well. It involves everybody.”