Ashland Police Chief Cyr Martin (left) and Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen. Credit: Anthony Brino and Christopher Bouchard / BDN File Photo

Aroostook County will soon increase its law enforcement rosters with four full-time officers, thanks to a half-million dollars in federal funding that existing departments hope will help them curb the growing drug trade.

Ashland Police Department has received $125,000 from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program, which will pay for a full-time officer’s position for the next three years. The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office will hire three deputies, having received $375,000. 

Both Ashland’s Chief Cyr Martin Jr. and Sheriff Shawn Gillen said law enforcement resources are stretched thin, and more officers on patrol means more people to battle increasing substance-abuse-related crime. In 2019, Aroostook had the highest number of drug incidents — 454 — among Maine counties as reported by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. And both said it’s getting worse.

“Basically, right now we’re just chasing our tail,” Gillen said Friday. “It’s been a really rough year or two, actually. Crime is not going down, and the mental health crisis is just at an all-time high. Domestics are up as well.”

Including Chief Martin, who also serves as Ashland’s town manager and wears several other municipal hats, the town’s police department has four officers. The new hire will bring the staff to five, three of those full time.

Without the new hire, there aren’t enough staff to cover all shifts, so officers are on call frequently. The department could not afford to hire a third full-time officer without the grant money. Ashland relies on assistance from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which is also shorthanded.

“Drugs are getting worse, they’re not getting better,” Martin said. “That’s in every community.  I don’t foresee it getting any better until we can just crack down really hard.  With the shortage of police officers, it’s just the reality.”

Sheriff Gillen said he believes substance abuse and mental health are related, and most of the crimes that happen in the region can probably be traced to some kind of substance abuse, whether alcohol or drugs.

The three hires will mean four sergeants and 12 deputies on the road. It’s uncertain where the new officers will be placed, but northern Aroostook will get one, possibly two of the deputies, he said, depending on the areas of greatest need.

Though he said they’ll still probably be shorthanded, having new personnel will allow them to work on “hot spots” that need extra patrol.  

The Sheriff’s Office covers a large territory, from near the Katahdin region through northernmost Aroostook in the St. John Valley. And it has helped municipalities that have lost their law enforcement presence. Since Van Buren closed its police department last December, calls go to the Sheriff’s Office or Maine State Police.

“But here’s the problem. Say I take somebody from a PD that is struggling. Then they’re struggling even more, and we end up basically covering that place,” Gillen said. “For us to fill these positions, we’re most likely taking from somewhere else, and that’s going to put them in a bind.”

The sheriff and Ashland’s Chief Martin said they hope when the funding runs out in three years, they will have a budget to keep the new hires. As a condition of the grant, they have to keep the officers for at least another year.

Martin is also chief of the Washburn Police Department, which received a COPS grant last year and hired a new full-time officer. Both he and Gillen will begin searching to fill their positions right away.

“It’s been a really rough couple of years. This line of work is tough,” Gillen said. “I think a bright spot generally is that the County people realize that we do need more law enforcement and they’ve been very supportive of that. I didn’t have to fight to get approval of three more deputies.”