The pieces of the puzzle that made up the BDN's investigative series on Maine sheriffs. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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Troy Morton, the Penobscot County Sheriff, is the president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association.

If you live in a rural area of Maine, most likely, your neighbors, family and community are the most important part of your lives. According to the 2010 census, more than half of Maine is considered rural, which gives Maine the feel of being one big community.

In law enforcement, Maine sheriffs are largely responsible for these rural communities and unorganized territories. Many sheriffs’ offices cover areas the size of Rhode Island, and in counties with highly dispersed populations. We cover islands and populations where it can easily take two hours to get from one side of a coverage area to another.

As sheriffs in the great state of Maine, we consider ourselves to be community-oriented. Many of our offices have senior safety programs, teen outreach programs, and have formed opioid task forces to tackle some of our most urgent problems. Our responsibilities are consistent with our mission. We patrol roads, engage in extensive community outreach and education campaigns and we work to keep our local communities safe. In Maine, we are also responsible for administering and staffing the regional and county jails.

While we strive to provide the highest level of service, we are not unique in needing to work towards a greater level of professionalism that all in law enforcement can and should be striving to achieve. Expanding medical, mental health and additional programming is one example of how sheriffs have transformed correctional services. Pre-trial services, medically assisted treatment programming and jail diversion day reporting are some a few examples of best practices being utilized in our county jails.

For the last two years, our discussions at the Maine Sheriffs’ Association have included how we can enhance our services and continue to meet high levels of professionalism. With many of our law enforcement colleagues, we recognize improvements are needed in certain areas that will provide better outcomes to the public. As our role continually expands and evolves, we are looking for new and creative ways to deal with the most pressing issues facing our communities’ substance use disorders, COVID19, domestic violence programs and grants that include community liaison members in the area of mental health.

The sheriff’s office is often the only interaction some members of rural communities have in a given week. To that end, we have worked to increase our outreach in a number of counties to include in-person wellness checks for our seniors or daily call-ins to touch base. While these programs are hugely successful and appreciated by the public, we still have work to do in other areas.

The Maine Sheriffs’ Association will be working on several bills this legislative session to address areas we have identified; some involve law enforcement accountability. One issue addresses negotiated personnel settlements that allow all parties to part ways without public disclosure, even when there is suspected misconduct. The reported reasons this happens deserves consideration, including bargaining agreements, civil rights and labor laws.

To that end, our association is promoting legislation that would allow for greater transparency in law enforcement applications. When a deputy or officer transfers from one agency to another, their records would follow them, allowing for the new place of employment to have a full understanding of the applicant’s work history. Right now, that often doesn’t happen, resulting in hires that should never have happened. Transparency is our ultimate objective.

Additionally, an issue has come to light that has been on the association’s radar for many years. Currently, sheriffs can only be removed by the governor as part of our state’s Constitution. There is no process in place for the administrative leave of a sheriff for any cause. LR 730 would address this issue and we look forward to working with our local legislators on this to find common ground that protects the public and ensures our sheriffs continue to maintain the highest standard of operating.

As we continue to professionalize the office of sheriff, we continue to promote reforms that ensure a sheriff must be certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and maintain certification throughout their time in office. The association is also working to develop model policies of national law enforcement and corrections best practices that can be shared with and adopted by each office.

County law enforcement is critical in a mostly rural state like Maine, and Maine sheriffs play a vital role in maintaining public safety in these areas. It is an honor and privilege to serve as an elected sheriff. We go to work every day with the intent to provide all Maine citizens with ethical and compassionate law enforcement services.