A bid by the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department to add a ninth patrol deputy comes as the department grapples with a 13 percent increase in overall reported crime and a 63 percent jump domestic violence cases.
In 2013, the sheriff’s department responded to 268 cases of domestic violence, compared to 164 in 2012.
“When I started breaking down the numbers and looking at response times and workloads that were being asked of our deputies, I proposed we hire another one,” Chief Deputy Dale Lancaster said.
Responding to reports of a domestic violence attack requires a lot of manpower and is time consuming, he said.
A ninth patrol deputy would allow the sheriff’s department to have three deputies on duty during each shift. Deputies cover roughly 4,000 square miles of land in Somerset County
With coverage by three deputies, the county would still have an officer free to respond to other calls if the department is called for a domestic violence incident.
Lancester said the process of investigating, interviewing, gathering evidence can take several hours.
“And if there’s an arrest, depending on where you are in the county, it could be a long ride,” he said. “Even if the incident doesn’t result in an arrest, the process is still time consuming, and can last days with necessary checkups 48 hours later.”
The Maine Chiefs of Police Association recommends at least two officers respond to a domestic violence call. Adding another patrol deputy would mean three officers could be on duty at all times, leaving one deputy to answer other calls while the department handles an incident of domestic violence.
The increase in domestic violence reports at the sheriff’s department follows the trend reported by law enforcement agencies county-wide, according to the Unified Crime Report, a collection of data from 150 Maine law enforcement agencies.
In 2012, the latest year available, domestic violence reports in Somerset County increased 52 percent, from 223 in 2011 to 340 in 2012. The previous year saw a near-11 percent jump in domestic violence calls in Somerset County.
Statewide, there was a more than 4 percent increase in domestic violence calls in 2012 compared to 2011, the report said.
It is not only the number of calls for incidents of domestic violence that eats into patrol time. Increased awareness of the problem of domestic violence, and its potential for tragedy has led to increased work for responding law enforcement officers.
“Over time, how we respond to domestic violence complaints have evolved,” he said. “There is much more involved and with a comprehensive investigation each time, it’s very time consuming. It goes beyond just at the scene.”
The proposed $343,000 increase in the sheriff’s budget comes in a year in which the county budget committee was hoping to keep spending flat. After various grants, the cost to the county of hiring, outfitting and equipping a new deputy would be about $103,000.
Lancaster argues the expense is justified, given increased call volume and the lack of other capital improvements for the sheriff’s department on the immediate horizon.
“The need for public safety and safety of our officers is most important,” Lancaster said. “We understand the tough economic times, but felt this need could be articulated.”
The added focus and attention being put on domestic violence reports prevents deputies from regular patrols which Lancaster said helps prevent illegal activity ranging from traffic violations to break-ins and burglaries.
“Visible patrol, at some level, is a deterrent for crime,” Lancaster said. “Absent that visible deterrent, your willingness to be compliant to the law might not be as strong and we are not as cognizant of the area. The people that participate in that level of criminal behavior, they know where the police are.”
The public hearing and votes for the county budget are scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, June 16, at Somerset County Superior Court, on the second floor of the county office building on High Street in Skowhegan.