Residents and police and town officials meet in a virtual town hall Monday.

Problems that have prompted calls for police reforms nationwide exist in central Maine, residents told several local police chiefs and other municipal leaders in a sometimes heated virtual town hall session Monday.

There were some differing views expressed on whether Maine police departments need the same type of reforms being advocated for elsewhere in the country in response to police shootings and reports of discrimination.

Police chiefs and municipal leaders from Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop, Monmouth and Hallowell met with about 70 area residents during the virtual listening session.

After Gardiner Police Chief James Toman, in comments he later retracted, stated that though he agreed change is necessary, “the conversations that are happening, are happening because of things happening in other parts of the country.” Resident and state Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, chairperson of the legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said Maine is not free of the problems that protestors and others have sought to address elsewhere.

“That’s dangerous as far as I’m concerned,” Warren said of Toman’s earlier comment. “Especially to folks in our state who are persons of color, who are persons living in poverty, or of a different gender identity. There are those issues here.”

Toman apologized and said he is well aware there are issues to be addressed with law enforcement in Maine, and “with more frequency than we’d like to admit.”

Shannon Wakefield said she is a lesbian and, when a Hallowell officer responded to an incident in which someone used gay slurs against her, the officer wrote out a report on the incident that did not mention any of the gay slurs.

“What was just said in this last conversation, it absolutely does happen, And we are not protected, and it is overlooked and it does happen,” she said. “It happens in Hallowell, in a gay community. And it’s not right.”

Hallowell Police Chief Scott MacMaster responded that Wakefield is correct that the words used against her should have been documented in the report, and said he had addressed the problem.

Police, members of the public who took part in the session, and legislators agreed police officers should not be the ones providing services to people having mental health or substance use related problems. But many said police, as the ones who respond to 911 calls for emergency assistance, are still often tasked with trying to help people in those situations.

Augusta Chief Jared Mills said police don’t want to be the ones to provide those services. He noted the city’s police force works with a mental health caseworker who responds to help people in mental health crisis and is just now starting to work with Crisis and Counseling in a new program that will put a substance abuse worker out in the field, who’ll respond to overdoses and other calls involving someone with substance use problems, separate from police. He said those services are available not just in Augusta but also elsewhere in Kennebec County.

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, a former police chief, Maine State Police detective and Republican leader of the Criminal Justice Committee, agreed that mental health and social work should not fall to police. But he warned against defunding police and potentially leaving them without adequate resources to respond, including to calls involving someone in mental health crisis who could pose a safety risk.

“Instead of taking funds away from police departments I’d like to see monies put into the Department of Health and Human Services to be able to help those people, to come together and work with police, to help them do their job,” Pickett said.

Officials said listening to the concerns and thoughts of community members is something police chiefs would normally do in person, at gathering places in their day-to-day rounds in their municipalities. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings meant to help limit spread of the virus severely limiting social interactions over the past year, southern Kennebec County police chiefs — including Mills, Toman, MacMaster, Ryan Frost of Winthrop and Kevin Mulherin of Monmouth — instead gathered online Monday over the Zoom videoconferencing platform to seek input from area citizens about policing.

Rebecca Graham, legislative advocate for the event’s host, the Maine Municipal Association, said the session will be the first of many virtual, regional gatherings across the state to provide municipal police and managers information on what residents want from police and what changes they would like to see.

Noel March, director of the Maine Community Policing Institute, facilitated the discussion.

March said, at the start of the meeting, there were 74 people taking part.

Robin Miller asked the police chiefs what people can do to best support their police departments.

Winthrop’s Chief Frost said simply showing gratitude and saying “hi” to officers, helps, as does holding police accountable.

“If you have a question about something, if you see something you don’t feel is right, please let us know,” Frost said.

 

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