We’ve got too much law enforcement — and it’s too expensive!
Maine’s game wardens won’t like this column. Neither will sheriffs’ deputies or state troopers. I will be very careful to fasten my seat belt, stay within the speed limits and obey all of the thousands of fishing and hunting laws and rules that sportsmen must master these days.
We suffer from a complex, duplicative, inefficient and expensive law enforcement system. I’m not sure if we have too many or too few law enforcement officers, but I am certain that too many highly trained officers waste time on tasks that others could do for a lot less money.
And there seems to be a terrible confusion of duties. Game wardens spend a lot of time searching for marijuana plants. Forest rangers, whose primary function is to check forest harvesting practices, want guns, worrying that their jobs are getting more dangerous. Sheriffs’ deputies compete with municipal police officers to get to accidents and crime scenes first. And no one wants to clean up after a moose or deer collision with a vehicle.
There’s a stunning lack of cooperation and coordination up and down the chains of command and little attempt to sort through our law enforcement needs to avoid duplication and waste.
OK, now I bet I’ve gotten their attention. I could be overstating this, but I don’t think so.
I am most familiar with the work of the Maine Warden Service. Wardens’ work on hunting, fishing and trapping law enforcement has decreased since the early 1990s from 70 percent of their time to about 50 percent, yet sportsmen still pay all their bills. Game wardens have become the police in rural Maine, even working on school security and crimes from robbery to murder.
The number of warden prosecutions has decreased from 5,496 in 1998 to 3,805 in 2011. And the preponderance of summonses in 2011 were issued to people who failed to buy a proper permit, license or registration, making game wardens DIF&W’s very expensive revenue police.
The offense that generated the most summonses, 494, was operating a boat without the required safety equipment (mostly life preservers).
While anglers debate the complexity of fishing rules, with a wide variety of regulations governing the number, weight and fish that may be kept, only 79 anglers were summonsed for exceeding these limits. That would be 0.0003 percent of all anglers who fished in Maine in 2011.
Only 69 trespassing citations were issued, just 0.018 percent of the 3,900 summonses issued that year.
Game wardens, however, issued 98 summonses for illegal possession of marijuana.
What really hurts is that 60 percent of all the money the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife raises in Maine goes to the Warden Service. The Fisheries and Wildlife Divisions and the fish, wildlife and habitat that depends on the staff in those divisions, is getting shortchanged.
This inequity causes substantial harm to our outdoor economy, too. DIF&W issues far fewer moose permits than it could, because the agency doesn’t know enough about moose health and mortality. We’re harvesting only 4 percent of our moose every year — far short of big game harvests in other places. Newfoundland, for example, harvests 20 percent of its moose herd every year. And even New Hampshire and Vermont do more research about moose mortality than we are.
I’d like game wardens to focus on responding to complaints from private landowners who allow us to recreate on their property and going undercover to catch serious poachers, rather than spending so much of their time checking for licenses, permits and registrations (compliance is extremely high), doing the crime-fighting work of other law enforcement officers and going after marijuana growers. If this actually happened, we’d need fewer wardens and have lots more money for the fish and wildlife resources we all value.
An even better solution may exist, however. In my ideal law enforcement system, we’d have one statewide agency, with two groups of officers. Some would be highly trained and well equipped to tackle serious crimes. A less-expensive cadre of officers — needing less training and equipment — would handle everything else, from checking fishing licenses to forest harvesting and sitting by the highway with a radar gun to catch speeders.
Do we really need a highly trained, expensively equipped armed officer to check boats for life preservers? Of course not!
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or georgesmith firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.