KNOX COUNTY, Maine — With only one sheriff’s deputy currently serving the neighboring islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven, town officials want more in the way of police coverage.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office has been searching for a second deputy for the past year, but filling the position has been a challenge.
While the thought of living on an island off the Maine coast might seem dreamy, Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll said finding someone who will commit to the remote lifestyle is an entirely different story.
“It sounds like a good deal,” Carroll said. “But you have to really accept that you’re going to live on an island, and the primary mode of transportation is the ferry.”
There are four island communities in Knox County. However, only North Haven and Vinalhaven have dedicated police coverage from the sheriff’s office. North Haven and Vinalhaven are Knox County’s most populated islands, with about 400 and 1,200 year-round residents respectively. Their populations spike during summer.
Deputies respond to the other islands, Matinicus — Maine’s most remote island community — and Isle au Haut, when a 911 call is placed.
For about 20 years, the county has had contracts with North Haven and Vinalhaven that specify each island will have a dedicated sheriff’s deputy working 40 hours per week. On Vinalhaven, the deputy is supposed to work 60 hours per week, according to the contract. The positions’ costs are shared by the town and the county.
But lately, this has not been the reality.
Vinalhaven’s most recent deputy left the sheriff’s office more than a year and a half ago, meaning the deputy on North Haven has been covering both islands — sometimes working upward of 80 hours a week.
“It’s been working, but it’s not good for him,” Carroll said.
In a joint letter to Knox County Commissioners, town officials from North Haven and Vinalhaven outlined concerns about the lack of police coverage, stating that the situation causes island residents “to lose faith in the county’s ability to meet their law enforcement needs.”
When a deputy isn’t on one of the islands, “residents have come to learn that there is little likelihood of the sheriff’s office being able to dispatch an officer from the mainland to North Haven or Vinalhaven in a timely manner (especially when the problem occurs at night or during foul weather) so they typically avoid reporting,” Vinalhaven town manager Andrew Dorr and North Haven town administrator Rick Lattimer wrote in the letter.
To better cover the islands, Lattimer and Dorr suggested having three deputies work on a rotating basis to decrease the risk of burnout.
But Carroll said adding a third deputy would not help, since the sheriff’s office has been unsuccessful in finding a candidate to fill the current vacancy on Vinalhaven.
The sheriff’s office receives applications on a rolling basis, but when an applicant finds out that the position is on an island located an hour by boat off the coast, they have reservations.
“A lot of that is ‘Ehh maybe, let me talk to my family’ and then it just doesn’t fly,” Carroll said.
The job has benefits that a mainland gig would not, including housing with utilities that are paid for and a stipend for other expenses, such as the cost of having to take the ferry.
The type of policing required is also a little different.
“On an island you are ingrained in the community,” Carroll said. “It’s a different way of doing law enforcement. It’s very personal. It takes community policing to a whole different level.”
This means that residents often go straight to the island’s deputy with any issues instead of calling 911 and having the regional call center dispatch the deputy. This can become an infringement on the deputy’s personal life when he or she is not working a shift.
Additionally, a vast stretch of water separates deputies from back-up if a situation calls for a larger police turnout. Penobscot Island Air and Maine Marine Patrol can assist in bringing additional deputies to the island if needed, but that is dependent on weather conditions.
Dorr and Lattimer were explicit that they are not complaining about the sheriff’s office. Instead they were raising the issue to bring up potential solutions.
For the past two months, Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies have been working on Vinalhaven on a weekly rotating basis to help with coverage. However, that leaves gaps on the mainland that are being filled with deputies working overtime.
Another meeting between Knox County Commissioners, island officials and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office will be held Dec. 5.