ROCKLAND, Maine — Vinalhaven residents say they want broader police coverage and are demanding more accountability from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
About 75 expressed concerns Thursday night at a community meeting there that focused on how the remote island, about 14 miles off the coast of Rockland, can be better policed.
Conversations about the lack of adequate police coverage are intensifying just a month after a high-profile killing on Vinalhaven, which left many questioning if justice had been served. That incident underscores other concerns Vinalhaven residents have about the effectiveness of police there.
Last week, the town rejected paying for services from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which has one deputy stationed on the island. The agency’s most recent police contract with the island expired in December. Now Vinalhaven is in limbo until a new deal is reached.
Trust “is broken” between islanders and the police, according to draft minutes of Thursday’s town meeting provided by Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr, and some say “respect has been lost.”
Islanders say they won’t settle for an officer who writes tickets or “patrols from the parking lot in town.” Rather they want one who “has a pulse on the community and can have the respect of the community,” according to meeting minutes.
For decades the sheriff’s office has contracted with the towns of Vinalhaven and neighboring North Haven to provide police coverage on the islands. But finding deputies who want to live and work on the islands has been a challenge. The islands are located more than an hour from the mainland by ferry from Rockland, and officers are often on-call 24 hours a day.
Until earlier this summer, a lone deputy covered both North Haven and Vinalhaven — a disjointed territory of about 250 square miles of water and land populated by about 1,500 people, that swells in the summer months with seasonal visitors. Crime in Vinalhaven is disproportionately higher than other areas in Knox County — it has the second-highest arrest rate and third-highest call volume of the county’s municipalities, but ranks 14th in population, according to Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll.
The sheriff’s office recently hired an additional deputy to help police the islands. However, the officer assigned to Vinalhaven lives on North Haven, which poses logistical challenges in emergencies because there are no bridges connecting the two islands and they must be accessed by boat. To provide more effective coverage on Vinalhaven, residents say its deputy must live on the island.
Vinalhaven pays about $120,000 annually for police services. That covers 50 percent of the deputy’s salary, plus a $13,500 stipend for housing and utilities so they can live there.
Vinalhaven’s contract with the sheriff’s office stipulates that a deputy work 40 hours per week on the island. The town also is responsible for covering any overtime pay.
Islanders realize policing isn’t a 9-to-5 job, and many say they’re OK paying more for coverage, as long as police are readily accessible and responsive.
But speakers at Thursday’s meeting in Vinalhaven cited past police failures on the island, including a lack of follow-up to complaints.
Roger Feltis, the man who was killed on the island June 14, allegedly went to the deputy stationed on Vinalhaven just days before he died to file a harassment complaint against the couple who killed him. Feltis’ girlfriend, as well as his boss, told the Bangor Daily News he attempted to follow-up with the deputy multiple times about the complaint with no success.
The couple has claimed self defense and a grand jury declined to indict them on criminal charges.
Sheriff Carroll, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said he acknowledged “recent events and expressed support for community healing,” according to minutes of the meeting. He said his office is committed to working with the town to find a solution.
Until Vinalhaven declined to renew its police contract last week, the office was still providing coverage under the past agreement.
Going forward, Dorr said he is not sure what the level of coverage will be from the sheriff’s office.
The Vinalhaven Selectboard will meet next week, where the conversation will likely continue. Dorr said the town will stay in contact with the sheriff’s office “as we look to find a solution to the community’s law enforcement needs.”