Other Maine towns like Damariscotta have considered contracting with county government to take over the town's police department. Town Manager Matt Lutkus said last year the town's department with five full-time officers, including the chief, plus several part-time positions, costs the town about $505,000 annually. A figure very similar to Fryeburg's current police department budget. The proposal was put before the town's voters last November. The charter amendment to eliminate the town's police department was rejected.
In Bethel, just north of Fryeburg in Oxford County, 104 people did vote to disband the force edging out the 89 people who voted to keep the department. Patrol duties were handed over to the Oxford County Sheriff's Department on July 1, 2010. The opinions in town regarding the success of this new arraignment are mixed.
The idea of town government contracting with the county sheriff department isn't uncommon in America. San Luis, the oldest community in Colorado fired its entire police force to save money. Around the country other towns, a few large and some small, are also disbanding their police departments. The Los Angeles suburb of Maywood, Calif., terminated all of its police officers. In Fallowfield, Pa., voters also fired their police department. These towns have been turning law enforcement over to county sheriffs, a decision that Jim Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police, called "penny-wise and pound foolish." "The absolute threshold responsibility of a government at any level is to ensure the safety of its citizens," he said, adding that local police officers are more effective because they "know the town, know the people and know the nuances."
And I couldn't agree more. But it's not only that the local police officers know the town, its citizens and it's nuances, it is that we, the voters, should supervise and protect our own town. Why would we want to give up control of any part of our town's government?
All levels of government enjoy, in our country, a high level of sovereignty. The rights and responsibilities of national, state, county and municipalities are clearly defined and delineated within three distinct branches – executive, legislative and judicial. When America was settled nearly all governmental sovereignty was vested at the local level. Over nearly 240 years, this sovereignty has been slowly eroded. Today some say global economic forces and geopolitics are chipping away at our nation's sovereignty but at the local level the voters still maintain democratic control. Let's not go willingly in that direction. We must always remember that at all levels of government the most important and foremost priority is to protect the people and safeguard their rights.
The final issue regarding this proposal is the quality of our police force and its professionalism. This may be at the heart of this contentious matter because perception can be everything and trust is all important. We the people give our police departments a good deal of discretion and we grant them great power. We do not do this lightly. To do this requires a good amount of trust and confidence in the department.
Last fall Town Manager Sharon Jackson received an anonymous letter accusing three Fryeburg police officers of impropriety. All three were put on paid administrative leave and a Portland law firm investigated the allegations. All three officers were cleared of any wrong doing but a certain amount of unease and mistrust remained.
The solution to this matter, in a sense, is already in place. All of us can agree that the quality of our schools is of utmost importance, so much so that we have an elected school board to oversee the entire system. The town police department can be of no less importance. The solution to the police department controversy — the mistrust, the expense and the prime responsibility of government to protect the public will be solved if we do this; create a three-member, elected police commission to supervise the administration of the Fryeburg Police Department. The commission members, being popularly elected will be accountable to the citizens and have budgetary control.
We can view this as a compromise if you like. I believe it is, because we can save money by electing a responsible commission who will be responsive and diligent plus keep direct, local control of this vital piece of town government.
Let's not be "penny-wise and pound foolish" or "throw the baby out with the bath water." Keep the department, fix it and make it a better organization by having the proper oversight.