WINTHROP — Few local law enforcement agencies in Maine have statewide arrest powers of the sort that Winthrop grants its officers.
Town officials said recently they would review the local policy following stories by the Kennebec Journal about a sting operation in Gardiner organized by Chief Joseph Young, of the Winthrop police. The sting was set up by Young as a favor to recover stolen golf clubs belonging to the son of Winthrop’s town attorney, and it ended in a supermarket parking lot with Young drawing his gun on an innocent man who had bought the clubs at a pawn shop.
No one was arrested or charged, and authorities have closed the case without seeking to find the real thief.
Winthrop councilors Sarah Fuller and Larry Fitzgerald earlier this month asked to review the policy, and the council is expected to do that at its next meeting, on April 1. Fuller said she received questions from constituents about police jurisdiction after publication of the stories about the sting operation, which was coordinated with Gardiner police at the last minute.
“A number of councilors have gotten contacted by constituents, and I think it’s incumbent on us to look for further information and see if it has been effective and whether it warrants any change,” she said. “Because it’s in the spotlight, it’s worth it for all of us to learn more about why the law is what it is.”
Fuller said she was not previously aware of statewide arrest powers rules adopted by Winthrop and wants to know more about how they’ve been useful for law enforcement.
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Association of Chiefs of Police, estimated that 30 municipal police departments in Maine have those powers. There are 122 police departments in the state, according to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
State law allows any officer to make arrests outside his or her jurisdiction when in “fresh pursuit” of a suspect. A law passed in 2003 allows municipal and county officials to grant statewide powers to police officers and sheriff’s deputies who have qualifications, such as working full time.
Schwartz said when the chiefs association was lobbying for passage of the statewide-arrest law, there was resistance from critics who worried about abuse of power. The law was amended to allow local governments to opt in, rather than requiring them to opt out.
“It’s just a situation where people are leery,” he said. “You don’t want cowboys running all over the place and people with guns and badges making arrests all over the place.”
At the request of Young, the Winthrop Town Council unanimously approved such a policy a few months after the law passed a decade ago. Winthrop’s Police Department has a police chief, an assistant police chief and seven full-time officers, according to the department’s website.
Council Chairman Kevin Cookson, a former sheriff’s deputy who was also on the council in 2003, said he thinks it would be a mistake to do away with the policy.
He compared it to prohibiting police officers from carrying guns.
“Maybe it’s because I’m prior law enforcement, but I think it would be ridiculous to rescind a policy that helps law enforcement do their job,” Cookson said.
Leaders of most police agencies in the Augusta area have not seen the need for statewide-arrest policies. Police departments in Augusta, Gardiner and Hallowell do not have them, nor does the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.
The situation in nearby Monmouth is unclear. Police Chief Kevin Mulherin said he and another Monmouth officer have statewide arrest powers and have made use of them since he became chief in 2011.
Monmouth selectmen, however, said they’re not aware of any such policy.
Mulherin said he thinks the statewide-arrest policy for Monmouth dates to the tenure of Robert Annese, who was chief from 2006 to 2009. He said it has been useful to his department’s operations, though he could not recall any specific examples of it being invoked.
When traveling outside of Monmouth, Mulherin said, his officers notify and typically are accompanied by an officer from the agency with jurisdiction at their destination.
In the case of Young’s sting operation, two Gardiner police officers watched the parking lot incident and moved in when they saw Young draw his gun on the unarmed man selling the clubs.
Mulherin said that even with an officer from another agency present, having the policy streamlines the arrest and prosecution process if a Monmouth officer can make an arrest in another community related to a Monmouth investigation.
“It goes back to the report-writing and such,” Mulherin said. “Everything is under that officer, instead of getting another officer to go make the report. The (district attorney) would have to contact that officer if it went to trial.”
But Monmouth selectman Doug Ludewig, who was a reserve police officer in Monmouth for 15 years, said that not only does he not recall approving a statewide-arrest policy, he also doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He has been a selectman for the last 13 years.
“It could be abused, I think,” Ludewig said. “I don’t think a local department should have that power.”
Schwartz said he has not encountered any complaints about the law in the decade since.
The law requires officers to notify the law enforcement agency at their destination in advance, or if that is not possible, immediately after making an arrest. Schwartz said advance notification is just common sense, but it may not be possible in some circumstances.
“If an off-duty police officer went into a bank in another town and there was a robbery going down, they can make an arrest without calling the department there,” Schwartz said.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said he also sees the applications for off-duty officers, as well as providing liability and workers compensation coverage for deputies providing mutual assistance in other counties.
“The intent here is to assist other agencies, not to enforce laws in other jurisdictions,” he said. The only other circumstance would be “if I happen to be traveling through another jurisdiction and something happens in my presence and it’s a public safety issue.”
Liberty said he doesn’t want a statewide-arrest policy for his deputies. Since becoming president of the Maine Sheriffs Association at this year, however, he has become more interested in inter-agency cooperation, so he’s pursuing agreements with bordering counties.
Liberty said Maine’s 16 counties have a range of different policies, including some with statewide arrest, depending on the philosophy of the sheriff and the commissioners and the resources of the department.
Liberty and the Kennebec County commissioners are working on an agreement with bordering Lincoln County to give Kennebec deputies arrest powers there.
Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said there’s always risk when a law enforcement officer goes into another jurisdiction, so the commissioners favor a conservative approach.
“We’re supportive, but we’re taking kind of a narrow scope, and that’s our first slice at this,” Devlin said.
Although the Augusta and Gardiner police departments don’t have statewide arrest powers, each department has some officers sworn in as sheriff’s deputies so they can work elsewhere in Kennebec County as part of the county’s Underage Drinking Task Force.
Chief Robert Gregoire, of the Augusta police, said a few officers also have been sworn in with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI to collaborate in their investigations.
Gregoire said department officials have considered whether they should ask the Augusta City Council to approve a statewide-arrest policy, but they decided against it.
“We’ve thought about it in the past; but for how we conduct business, we just didn’t figure it was a necessity,” he said.
Although Young’s sting in Gardiner triggered the Winthrop Town Council’s review of the statewide-arrest policy, it’s not clear what role it played in that operation or how it has affected the department’s policework.
Young did not return phone calls last week seeking comment.
The sting operation took place in August as part of an effort to recover a set of golf clubs stolen from Ross Bragg, a Manchester resident and son of Winthrop town attorney Lee Bragg. The clubs were stolen from Ross Bragg’s car while it was parked at the Sunday River ski resort in Oxford County.
Ross Bragg found his clubs listed on the online classified ad site Craigslist and set up a meeting at the Hannaford supermarket in Gardiner with a man selling clubs. Young accompanied Bragg, dressed in plain clothes and posing as Bragg’s father. Young notified Gardiner police Chief James Toman about the operation about 90 minutes before it happened — though two Gardiner officers called to assist.
Young didn’t know exactly when and where it would happen until about 10 minutes beforehand — and arranged for Gardiner officers to question the suspect if the clubs were Bragg’s.
After Bragg identified the clubs as his, Young ordered the seller, Joel Coon, of Dresden, to the ground. Coon, who says he was frozen with confusion, did not comply until Young pulled out his gun and pointed it at him.
The two Gardiner officers who had been watching moved in and questioned Coon, who was released when he explained that his brother had bought the golf clubs at a pawn shop. He later provided a receipt and was cleared.
Cookson said Winthrop’s statewide-arrest policy didn’t come into play during the sting operation, but it left open possibilities.
“It very well could have come into play if the police chief had gone there and they had determined that the golf clubs weren’t purchased in a pawn shop,” Cookson said. “Then the person would be in possession of stolen property. Then the chief could have made a decision whether to arrest the person.”
Coon filed a complaint about Young’s actions, but Town Manager Jeff Woolston determined that Young had not violated any laws or town policies. Councilors agreed with that assessment at their last meeting on March 4.
Cookson said he does not know of any incidents in which a Winthrop officer has arrested someone in another community, but it’s possible that it has happened without attracting “fanfare.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645