The town of Dixfield has temporarily deactivated its two-person police force, placing the police chief and lone patrol officer on paid administrative leave and turning over police coverage to the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office.

Town Manager Carlos Puiia said Wednesday that he made the decision because of a personnel issue involving one of the officers, but he refused to say which one or provide details because it is a personnel matter.

Police Chief Jeffrey Howe has been with the department since August 1999, and patrol officer Anne Simmons-Edmunds since February 2011. Puiia said both were put on leave “because if you have a department, you need a chief.” When asked if that meant the personnel issue involved the chief, Puiia said, “I’ll leave that up to you.”

A spokesman for the union representing Simmons-Edmunds said the investigation was about the chief’s use of work time.

“I spoke to (Simmons-Edmunds) and she said someone had seen the chief’s cruiser at his home, running. It’s going to be a ‘stealing time’ thing,” said Lorne Smith, secretary treasurer for Teamsters Local 340.

Simmons-Edmunds was placed on paid leave “because there is no superior officer,” Smith said. She was told to expect to be out until at least Jan. 9.

“It is unfortunate she got caught in the crossfire,” he said.

VACANCIES IN DIXFIELD DEPARTMENT

The western Maine town of 2,550 wouldn’t have had to shut the department down, Puiia said, if a string of recent departures hadn’t left it short-staffed. One officer left when a federal grant funding the position expired in July, a second officer left for personal reasons in September and a third left for health reasons in October.

“It was the most practical scenario to close the department while we deal with this,” said Puiia, who expects his investigation to be completed and closed in three to four weeks.

In the meantime, Puiia said, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office has cleared out the town’s ammunition, police vehicles, computers and other equipment until the situation is resolved.

Puiia said the police department provided 24-hour patrol, traffic enforcement and emergency response in the 41-square-mile town.

SOME SMALL TOWNS FORGO POLICE

In Maine, many small towns do not have their own police departments and contract services from the local sheriff’s office or state police. In some cases, it’s a financial decision.

Last year, Madison dissolved its police force as a way to reduce municipal costs after a huge loss in tax revenue caused by a sharply reduced tax assessment on Madison Paper Industries. In York County, 14 towns use either the sheriff’s office or state police.

Dixfield discussed that option several years ago, but townspeople voted to have 24-hour patrol coverage by local police, said Norine Clarke, chairwoman of the Dixfield Board of Selectmen. Puiia said there will be no additional cost to the town for the temporary coverage by Oxford County because state law requires the county sheriff or state police to provide coverage in the absence of a local police force.

Puiia refused to give any details about what prompted the personnel issue, but said it did not involve a state investigation. He said he notified the five town selectmen of his decision to close the department temporarily, but did not brief them on the details of the personnel issue because they may be involved in the process later.

“People are surprised by this,” Puiia said, noting that he’s had a few calls and people stopping by the town office to ask about it. “But it’s my duty to do my job, and that involves personnel. I want to assure (the town residents) that I have confidence in the Oxford County sheriff and his agency, and I think they are going to be providing good service during this difficult time.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine


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