CHINA — The town of China is looking at changing its municipal law enforcement coverage from town-employed, part-time police officers to deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.

Responses to the proposal, posted to the Friends of China Facebook group, sponsored by The Town Line newspaper, have sparked debate. Some who shared opinions said the town is “defunding the police.” Others defended the town’s proposal.

“What the town is looking to do is to find another option to provide the police services that the town has budgeted for,” China Town Manager Becky Hapgood said Thursday in an interview. “In prior budgets, we have budgeted 26 hours a week for municipal police services, and because the China police officers have regular full-time jobs, they are unable to work 26 hours between the three of them.”

The Augusta-based Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police now respond to calls and provide coverage in China. The town also employs part-time officers.

Becky Hapgood, the town manager in China, says the town is looking at changing its municipal law enforcement coverage from town-employed, part-time officers to deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. Above, Hapgood in July 2020 after being named town manager, after working for 26 years in the town clerk’s office. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

China, with a population of 4,328 that grows in the summer as people flock to China Lake, is among the smaller communities in Kennebec County, which has a population of 121,581.

The proposed article, on which town residents are to vote this summer at the annual town business meeting, would halt use of part-time officers and, instead, utilize Kennebec County Sheriff’s deputies for an average of 10 patrol hours per week.

Of China’s three officers, one works for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, another the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and the third in a different municipality in a job outside law enforcement. China’s police officers possesses full-time certifications and trainings, but only work part-time in China.

There are also two officers — Chief Michael Tracy and Sgt. Jerry Haynes of the Oakland Police Department — who serve as advisers to Craig Johnson, the chief of police in China.

Johnson said in a written statement Thursday he finds the matter “discouraging and dispiriting,” although he did not want “this issue to seem like or turn into a political matter.”

He said there are five part-time officers in China, each certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and a veteran of law enforcement.

Johnson said the town presented him with three options: Keep the China Police Department as is; add a 40-hour chief and keep part-time hours; or disband the local police force and hire the Sheriff’s Office for 40 hours a week.

“I believe the town of China, its residents and its police officers have quite a vested interest in the China Police Department,” Johnson wrote in the statement. “I have personally devoted a great deal of time and effort into updating equipment, updating the Standard Operating Procedures, establishing China P.D.’s own IMC reporting system and doing police work for China, all while representing the town. Also, I speak with people/residents all of time whom are glad see that China has its own police department.”

Hapgood said the proposed change would amount to the town’s suspending, “not disbanding,” its police force. She said under the proposed change, China would retain its police cruiser.

“It had to do with two things: The cost and the availability,” said Ron Breton, chairperson of the China Board of Selectmen. “We just want to make sure that there is the coverage that the town is expecting.”

In the current budget, there are about 113 hours available per month for police coverage, but the town police force have averaged about 43 hours per month since July 2020, according to Hapgood.

“We would like to have the flexibility to have officers during the day, not just after an 8-to-5 job,” Hapgood said. “They usually might patrol from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.”

China residents are expected to vote on the proposed change June 8 at the annual town business meeting. Voting is to be done by referendum.

The Board of Selectmen and Budget Committee have supported Article 8, which proposes spending $16,530 on animal control, $34,000 for police and $40,060 for dispatching. The $34,000 would cover up to 10 hours per week, with flexible hours.

Lt. Chris Read of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office said the agency covers about 21 towns that do not have municipal police departments, including nights in Clinton, when the town does not have anyone patrolling from its local police force.

China’s current budget allows its officers to work 26 hours per week, but hours often go unused.

The town has explored various options, according to Hapgood, including utilizing the Sheriff’s Office for 40 hours per week; hiring a full-time China police officer, with part-time help; and the final option of averaging 10 weekly patrol hours by the Sheriff’s Office.

“We are certainly not defunding the police. It just means we are going to try another option,” Hapgood said. “We didn’t take this decision lightly. It doesn’t mean we can’t go back to employing China police officers in the future.”

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