With the unexpected death last month of its police chief, the town of Southwest Harbor is taking a keener interest in the idea of sharing a chief with the towns of Mount Desert and Bar Harbor.
The idea of formally sharing some law enforcement resources with its neighboring towns has been kicking around since before Southwest Harbor hired Alan Brown as its police chief in 2015. Brown took the job knowing that his new employer might decide at some point to consolidate some police services with other towns on Mount Desert Island.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Brown said in 2016, when asked if Southwest Harbor might join forces, at least partially, with Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, which have been sharing the services of Police Chief James Willis since 2013.
But with Brown’s sudden death on Oct. 16, when he passed away while off duty, Southwest Harbor now is looking into whether it might be able to come to a chief-sharing agreement by the end of 2021. That is when the current chief-sharing agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert expires.
“It makes the question slightly more urgent,” Kristin Hutchins, chair of Southwest Harbor’s select board, said Wednesday.
In the meantime, Southwest Harbor has named Lt. Mike Miller as acting police chief, a position he previously held after prior Chief David Chapais retired and before Brown was hired. Miller likely will remain in that position while Southwest Harbor looks more closely into whether it might reach a formal agreement with Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, Hutchins said.
Brown had been discussing with Willis the possibility of consolidating dispatch services in the days before he died, Hutchins said.
A sharing agreement likely would not result in a reduction in officer staffing in any of the island’s police departments, Hutchins said, and Southwest Harbor’s law enforcement budget probably would not shrink if it shared some police services with the other towns. But such an agreement could help the town’s police department operate more efficiently, she said.
“I think there will be a possibility to offer better service,” Hutchins said. “I think our progress [toward reaching an agreement] will be deliberate.”
Under the current agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, the two towns fund their departments separately, but they explicitly share Willis as their chief, and there is more coordination between the two departments than is typical with simple mutual aid agreements.
Over the past seven years, Willis has streamlined operations by making sure the departments have the same record-keeping systems, coordinating routine patrols between the two towns and making other aspects of each department’s operations mirror each other.
Willis said Wednesday that he and other town officials in Mount Desert and Bar Harbor generally are receptive to discussing whether they might reach some sort of sharing agreement with Southwest Harbor, too. But any agreement that involves Southwest Harbor likely would have some different elements to it than the existing agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, Willis said, without going into detail.
With that agreement set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021, all three towns have a little more than a year to come up with a new proposed sharing agreement, and then to decide whether they want to approve it, Willis said.