A sign points to the entrance of the Hancock County Sheriff's Office in Ellsworth. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Instead of fielding a proposal from the county sheriff to acquire riot gear for his deputies, Hancock County commissioners decided Tuesday to consider whether to form a committee to look into more community-friendly policing techniques.

The idea arose Tuesday during the commissioners’ monthly Zoom meeting, when more than 50 people tuned in, many of whom wanted to voice objections to Sheriff Scott Kane’s desire to buy helmets, batons and protective gloves for his officers.

The discussion on how the sheriff’s department can best equip or prepare itself for handling community protests comes at a time when mass demonstrations have sprung up across the country in reaction to the killings of several Black people by police officers. Police departments have faced fierce criticism for how they have dealt with minorities and protesters, and for how they have equipped themselves — often with surplus military equipment that critics say exacerbates the divide between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

There have been some protests in recent weeks in Hancock County and several throughout Maine in association with the Black Lives Matter movement. All the ones in Hancock County have been peaceful despite a few heated but fleeting exchanges between protesters and passersby.

Kane has said that the riot gear would help his officers better protect themselves and the public in the event that groups of people with opposing viewpoints or objectives come into conflict during a protest. He characterized the equipment as safety gear, like the bulletproof vests his officers already wear on patrol, and said he has no interest in obtaining surplus military equipment or other crowd-control devices such as tear gas.

The sheriff said his officers already receive training for how to deal with people in crisis who may be suicidal or struggling with substance abuse.

Kane’s riot gear proposal was removed from the commissioners’ meeting agenda late last week, but that did not prevent the topic from coming up on Tuesday. Many members of the public told commissioners that outfitting deputies with riot gear would be an inflammatory reaction to the recent protests.

“We all want our [police] officers to be safe,” Leslie Ross, a Penobscot resident and restorative justice advocate, told commissioners. But she said that recent protests around the country have shown that such equipment often ends up being used as weapons against protestors who are exercising their rights.

Ross, a board member with the group Downeast Restorative Justice, said the county instead should form a committee to look into how the sheriff’s department can best handle community crisis situations. The committee could help the sheriff’s department draft or review policies for how to manage and de-escalate situations that involve crowds of agitated people, and how to best include (or get training from) mental health and substance abuse counselors in resolving conflicts.

“The other purpose of this committee will be to lay the groundwork for a more cooperative working relationship between law enforcement and the community they serve,” Ross said. “Together, we will establish a format of routine open communication.”

Though no formal proposal to buy riot gear was submitted at Tuesday’s commission meeting, and commissioners did not vote on the matter, two of the county’s three commissioners — Antonio Blasi and John Wombacher — said they oppose the purchase of such gear. Blasi and Wombacher instead voted to consider the possibility of forming a community policing committee, as Ross suggested, at the commission’s July 7 meeting.

Commissioner William Clark, the county’s former sheriff and chairman of the commission, had stepped away from his computer during the discussion and did not vote on whether to discuss the committee idea next month.

Kane said Tuesday he does not expect to submit a request to buy riot gear at next month’s meeting, though he might do so sometime after that.

As for the idea of establishing a community policing committee, Kane said, “I will see what they propose and go from there.”

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....