BELFAST, Maine — Waldo County residents will choose between two veteran, but very different, law enforcement officers to be the sheriff when they go to the polls next week.
It’s the county’s first contested sheriff’s race in decades, and it pits incumbent Sheriff Jeff Trafton against longtime Belfast police Sgt. John Gibbs. Both have served for many years in policing but would bring different approaches to the job of the county’s top lawman, particularly in regard to the areas of domestic violence and the Maine Coastal Reentry Center in Belfast.
For Trafton, 56, who is finishing his first four-year term as sheriff, community policing is a longtime passion. Prior to becoming sheriff, he spent four years as the chief deputy of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and six years before that as the chief of the Belfast Police Department. He started his Maine law enforcement career with a 20-year stint in the Maine State Police, where he ended up as a lieutenant supervising midcoast troopers.
“My philosophy as a law enforcement officer is to treat everybody with respect,” he said. “I learned that early in my career, and I think it helps.”
Gibbs said he would bring a fresh perspective on this and other issues if elected. The 50-year-old longtime police sergeant started his career in law enforcement in 1989 when he was hired as a corrections officer at the Waldo County Jail, and became a full-time officer at the Belfast Police Department in 1991. He’s running for sheriff as a nonparty candidate and is a familiar face around Belfast because he is a part-owner of three downtown establishments: Katwalk, the Front Street Pub and the Harborwalk Restaurant.
“I’ve had a very successful and rewarding career, and I’ve done that by treating people as I would want to be treated,” he said. “I feel the community loves the Belfast Police Department, and I want to carry that up the hill [to the sheriff’s office]. I love my job, but I have to move on. I’m applying for a better job, and the public is interviewing me. If they choose me, I’ll be glad.”
Trafton, a Republican, said that he is particularly proud of the focus on domestic violence that the sheriff’s office has had during his term as sheriff. During the past 20 years or so, the sheriff’s office has changed its approach to domestic violence-related calls for service in order to take victims more seriously and to hold abusers accountable.
Under Trafton’s leadership, the sheriff’s office wrote a grant to pay for the salary of a full-time domestic violence detective and has started a high-risk response team to do intensive safety planning for victims. In the past few years, New Hope for Women, the agency that works to end dating violence, domestic violence and stalking in Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, has moved its Waldo County headquarters to the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re the only sheriff’s department in the state of Maine that has a domestic violence agency in our office,” Trafton said. “I can’t say enough about the benefits.”
Gibbs said that he believes firmly that men are victims of domestic violence just as often as women are, and that he feels that men are not always the primary aggressors in domestic violence situations.
“It’s people being mean to people and people not being fair to other people,” he said.
According to him, the most important thing an officer should do is arrest the right person when they are responding to a domestic violence call.
“I feel so strongly about it,” he said, adding that he would like to look at the task force, too. “I think it’s admirable, the work they’re trying to accomplish. I think it’s important to remember that we as police officers have one goal — to find out the truth. The second goal is to protect the victims.”
Additionally, he feels New Hope For Women should be renamed New Hope for Domestic Violence Victims, to better encourage men to use the agency’s services (the agency does serve men as well as women), and said that he is not sure its Waldo County headquarters belongs in the sheriff’s office in the first place.
“I don’t know why they’re there,” Gibbs said.
Statistics shared by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence show that 82 percent of domestic violence is committed against women, compared with 18 percent against men.
Trafton said that he would like to continue working to combat domestic violence in Waldo County. There were 342 domestic violence calls for service in the county in 2017, not counting calls that were answered by the Maine State Police.
“That’s too many, in one sense,” the sheriff said. “But some of that is the work that we’ve done. We’re getting more victims to come forward, and more calls from relations and neighbors. That level of domestic violence was always there — we’re just getting more reports now.”
Maine Coastal Reentry Center
The two men also differ, sharply, on their opinions of the Maine Coastal Reentry Center. The center came into being after the Waldo County Jail was slated to be closed as part of a statewide jail consolidation plan that went into effect in 2008.
Scott Story, who was sheriff at the time, thought that Waldo County would be a good spot for a regional re-entry center, and it began accepting residents in 2009. It remains the only county-level re-entry center in Maine, and is intended to serve people who are coming to the end of their prison sentences and who need some help transitioning back to life outside of bars.
The 32-bed, minimum security facility has about 20 residents and priority is given to people who come from Waldo County. Violent criminals and sex offenders are not brought to the re-entry center, according to Trafton.
A 2015 study commissioned by the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office showed that re-entry center residents had a 31 percent recidivism rate, or rate of returning to prison within a period of time. That is much lower than the statewide recidivism rate, which currently is about 70 percent.
Trafton said the residents have to do volunteer service around Waldo County and grow many tons of vegetables at the center’s garden project in Swanville That produce is distributed to food pantries, soup kitchens and other nonprofit organizations in the area.
“These folks are all coming out of prison,” Trafton said. “We need to work with them. We need to invest in them. Teach them how to deal with their addictions. Teach them to make better decisions. Get them caught up on child support. They learn how to pay bills. They learn how to budget. All those things, we work on. This program is wide-ranging, and it’s not easy time for them. For many of these guys, this is some of the hardest time they’ve done. They have to face their failures, and for some people, it’s tough.”
But Gibbs, who for years has publicly expressed a desire to close the facility, said that he is very skeptical about what it does, who it helps and how much it costs taxpayers.
“I’ve said it out of frustration, continually investigating the crimes committed by reentry people. By people who wouldn’t necessarily be here if if wasn’t for the reentry center,” he said. “You become a bit cynical of the situation … at what cost is it worth it to have people come into this community who are reoffending?”
If elected, he said he would not shut down the facility, but instead make it more cost-effective by downsizing the garden project. He also would choose residents more carefully and make them more accountable when they break program rules, such as using drugs.
Many of the residents at the center struggle with drug addiction, and one resident died last summer after a suspected heroin overdose while he was working at the Dockside Family Restaurant in Belfast.
“If they slip up, they have to go back to jail,” Gibbs said. “There are some success stories, but you have to want to be successful. I chewed tobacco from 14 to 42. I understand addiction. I had to want to stop.”
Trafton, however, believes that this kind of rhetoric is not helpful. The residents are tested randomly for drugs, and at first, after a positive test, center staff would kick the person out of the program. But over time, officials learned that relapse is part of recovery from addiction.
“We look at the whole picture of each individual. Do they go back to jail, or do they continue?” he said. “Addiction is real, and the more treatment options and methods we can provide, the greater the chance people have of coming out of the program.”
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