New Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane shakes hands with well-wishers after being sworn into office on New Year's Day. Kane was elected last fall after William Clark, who served as Hancock County sheriff for 34 years, decided not to run again. Credit: Bill Trotter | BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Hancock County’s sheriff wants to purchase helmets, batons, gloves and a handful of shields for his deputies so they’re better equipped for potentially violent confrontations and other times when they’re in potential danger.

But while the sheriff says the gear is simply “safety equipment” and that his deputies would never confront peaceful protesters, the request is generating some concerns amid a nationwide wave of protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Saying that his officers need to be properly equipped, Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane is planning to seek authorization from county commissioners to purchase riot gear, and will discuss the topic with county commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday.

Kane said Friday that the request is merely aimed at providing his deputies with better protection when it’s needed. He said it’s not any different from the bullet-proof vests that his officers already wear when they are on routine patrol.

“It’s something we’ve talked about for a long, long time,” Kane said. “It’s safety equipment.”

Specifically, Kane said he is looking to outfit his officers with helmets, batons, and gloves, and to get “three or four” shields. He said he previously had considered kevlar helmets for his officers to have in the event of an active shooter incident — the possibility of which his department has trained for many years — but currently thinks simple, less expensive helmets would be more appropriate.

Kane said he knows some people have raised concerns about the request. Given the feedback, he said he likely will simply present commissioners with information about the equipment on Tuesday, but will hold off on putting in a formal request to purchase it.

The sheriff said he has no interest in acquiring tear gas or other types of military-style equipment that bigger law enforcement agencies might have. He said he also is seeking county commissioners’ approval to purchase a pistol and rifle for a deputy position he is hoping to fill, but those firearms are already standard-issue for his officers.

Kane stressed that the additional gear would be used only for quelling violent conflicts between groups of people, not for confronting peaceful protestors. He has witnessed recent peaceful anti-racism protests in Ellsworth, he said, and he assisted with security for President Donald Trump’s visit to Guilford last week.

He never saw a need for such gear to be deployed at those events, Kane said.

“I support people’s right to assemble peacefully,” he said.

But it would not be unheard of for a group of people to show up at a peaceful rally or protest in hopes of instigating a confrontation, he added. If such a confrontation escalated from yelling to something physical, he said, he would want his officers to be properly equipped to get things under control.

“You throw in some hot weather and a few beers, and [it could be] game on,” Kane said.

However, a representative with a local restorative justice group said that acquiring such equipment is “not in the interest of the citizens of Hancock County.”

Leslie Ross, Hancock County case coordinator for the Belfast-based Restorative Justice Project, said the Black Lives Matter movement is drawing attention to excessive and illegal police tactics nationwide, and that many elected leaders across the country now are taking steps to reverse a trend of militarizing police departments.

“Funding riot gear and firearms and ammunition is not an acceptable direction for Hancock County County to take,” Ross said in an email sent to the group’s supporters. “It is in direct opposition to what community policing is, in direct opposition to any form of restorative practices.”

Watch: Protesters march through Augusta with their hands up

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Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....