ORONO, Maine — Ed Leskey doesn’t exactly fit the role of a traditional police officer.
He connects people with local resources for various social services, mediates conflict, handles reports of hate crimes or discrimination and participates in community discussions to learn how police officers can serve Orono more equitably.
Leskey describes himself as a peacekeeper, a term that is especially fitting for his new role as the director of Orono’s first-ever community policing division.
The program is the latest example of how some Maine towns are reimagining the role police officers play in their communities. The department already had a community policing philosophy, but the concept of creating an actual team dedicated to this role had little traction until George Floyd’s death spurred the initiative forward.
Floyd, who died in police custody last year in Minnesota, sparked a movement calling for police reform across the nation. Community policing initiatives were present in some states before Floyd’s death — particularly in small college towns where the standard criminal justice process may not meet a community’s needs.
From left (clockwise): Officer Ed Leskey talks with Asa Adams Elementary School Counselor Lisa Erhardt during student drop-off on Friday morning; A shelf of books about community-oriented policing are lined up on a bookcase in Capt. Dan Merrill’s office at the Orono Police Department; Officer Ed Leskey takes a Zoom call with a representative from NAMI Maine to discuss crisis resources on Friday morning; An Orono police hat is seen atop a bookcase in Capt. Dan Merrill’s office on Friday morning. Credit: Nina Mahaleris | BDN
Orono Police Chief Josh Ewing has wanted a community policing officer in his department since 2015, when he met a chief in Durham, New Hampshire, who had what he called a “problem-oriented policing” officer on staff.
Waldo County runs a similar program with its own community liaison who helps solve local problems that fall outside of the purview of a traditional police officer.
Along with Leskey, the community policing division includes Officer Courtney James, who will focus on the schools as a community services officer. Leskey had served as the school resource officer for 10 years.
Creating the unique community policing role was a challenge. It meant justifying a need for the position and then finding enough municipal money to hire a new employee. For a few years, nothing happened — until May 25, 2020, when Floyd died in police custody after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Floyd’s death ignited a social revolution for police reform across the nation. That impact was felt in Orono, even from states away.
Orono students and residents wrote to town councilors, urging the town to make a statement condemning the violence. Ewing met with a handful of people concerned about local police oversight and transparency.
That was the push he needed to formally create the community policing division. “This was the time to do it in a big way,” Ewing said.
Some residents said that Orono has needed a dedicated community policing role for a long time. Bob Sinclair, a former assistant principal at Orono High School, said that Leskey helped mediate a dispute with his neighbors recently.
Sinclair’s neighbors are college students — who he said are good kids but a little loud. He didn’t want to get them in trouble but the noise became such a problem that he and his wife were losing sleep.
He needed a long-term fix that wouldn’t escalate the problem and didn’t result in cops handing out noise violations or citations. “We don’t want to call the police on them all the time,” Sinclair said.
Leskey told Sinclair to text him whenever there’s an issue and he’ll get in touch with the property manager of the house, who then talks to the students. So far, the solution seems to be working.
“It’s been a whole lot better for the last three weeks,” Sinclair said.
Finding solutions to neighborhood problems is just part of Leskey’s new job. Possibly his greatest responsibility is to build trust between the community and the police department.
Orono residents seem supportive of the police but real community trust can extend beyond what is seen on the surface. To Ewing, successful community policing means that people see their officers giving fair and equitable treatment to each person they interact with.
Often, people avoid calling the police because they don’t think an issue is important enough to report, he said. The community policing division may help change this culture and shed light on bigger issues that could otherwise go unnoticed.
Last November, someone in a passing car yelled death threats to a teen girl who was walking her little brother home from school. The person apparently directed the threats at her because she was wearing a hijab, the town said.
The teen told her mom, who relayed the story to a friend who later reported it to police. They didn’t report it themselves because they hoped it was just a one-time incident and they didn’t want to appear afraid, Ewing said.
Police weren’t able to identify a suspect.
Since then, Leskey’s met with the mom and daughter to show them the police want to help. Ewing said he hopes the community policing division will empower residents to speak out when something happens.
Leskey’s role has many layers, but he views its purpose in a very simplistic way — “it’s connecting people with people,” he said.
While he’s only been on the job for a month, he’s already made contacts with statewide organizations and other area police departments to find ways to best serve Orono as a community-oriented policing division.
“We’re so small in Maine, we have to work together.”