July 31, 2013

As Clinton Police Department debate continues, spate of vandalism shows where small-town cops come in

By Jesse Scardina jscardina@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

CLINTON — Earlier this month, a window was busted out at the American Legion post, swings were stolen from the elementary school playground and the scoreboard at Gordon Field was marked with dents and holes “similar to what a crowbar would leave,” according to police reports.

click image to enlarge

Police officer Charles Theobald recently was hired by the Clinton police department.

Staff photo by David Leaming

The vandalism during a three-day period — mixed in with other calls such as threatening, theft and noise complaints — are all examples of some of the calls for service residents have made from the police department in the last two weeks.

They’re also the type of calls that wouldn’t receive immediate attention without a local police department.

During three public hearings at selectmen’s meetings the last two months, residents have hashed out whether they want to keep the police department.

Town voters will reconsider the police budget in a referendum from noon to 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the town office. Voters rejected the department’s last budget proposal at the annual Town Meeting on June 11.

If voters reject the budget, the department will continue to operate on the amount budgeted for last year and face a vote in June that could dissolve the department.

The proposed budget is $90 less than last year’s $198,044.

Depends on what’s going on

Clinton Police Chief Craig Johnson said Wednesday that the investigation into the vandalism reported July 21 through 23 is ongoing, but said there are persons of interest.

Violations of the curfew ordinance involving juveniles occurred around the same time as the vandalism, but he can’t confirm whether the two were connected.

According to Johnson, several young people were spotted breaking curfew. According to local ordinance,  anyone under 18 years old can’t wander or loiter in Clinton from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian or on an emergency errand.

The issues of vandalism or enforcing other town ordinances is the responsibility of local police departments. State police and sheriff’s departments do not enforce local ordinances, and while they’re patroling, calls for vandalism will be responded to “depending on what’s happening at that time,” according to Sheriff Randall Liberty of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.

“If nothing’s going on, we may work on vandalism,” Liberty said. “It’s around 12th or 13th on the (priority) list,” he said. He said high priority calls included violence against people, robberies and burglaries.

According to the annual Clinton town report, more than 150 thefts, 80 criminal mischief cases, 30 operating under the influence charges and 22 drug violations have been reported since 2010.

The scoreboard was valued at about $600, and the town is still deciding whether to repair it. Town Manager Warren Hatch said the decision to replace the missing swings is up to Fairfield-based School Administrative 49.

‘Mostly angry people show up’

Former planning board chair Michael Walton, 63, has lived in Clinton for 17 years, and believes it would be useless to have a curfew if there’s no one to police it.

“We have a curfew set up, but without a local police department, you might as well throw that out,” Walton said.

He also said he’s supported the police department in the past and said he will continue to put up signs and provide awareness for the upcoming vote.

“Right now, we don’t have enough signs to remind people to vote,” Walton said. “I’m worried about it enough. What happens, is it appears with low voter turnout, mostly angry people show up.”

Walton is hoping that while the support of the department was apparent at all three public meetings, he wonders if those same supporters will show up at the polls on Aug. 13.

“All those voices I heard, did they actually vote in June?” Walton said.

Walton said that between Clinton’s geography — tucked in the northeast corner of 951-square mile Kennebec County — and its aging demographic, it’d be foolish to dissolve a local police force.

“From personal experience, I’ve waited for state police or sheriff’s department for 30 to 45 minutes,” Walton said.

Last winter, he said, a car accident left a vehicle partly blocking the road near his home during low visibility.

“I almost hit it so I called it in,” he said. “The car was half in the road and half in the ditch.”

The sheriff’s department couldn’t respond right away, and it was more than 30 minutes before the car was towed out, he said. 

In addition, Walton said the aging Clinton population raises risks from burglary and other crimes.

“When we’re aging, we get aches and pains, and to help those (problems), we get pills,” he said. “We’re an aging community, which makes us a target.”

According to the 2010 census, 12 percent of Clinton’s population, or 424 people, were more than 65 years old. Another 148 residents, or 4 percent of the population, are between 50 and 64 years old. The town’s population is just more than 3,400.

‘It’s an uphill battle’

One of the most common complaints by residents has been about the conduct of police officers. Yet, the majority of complaints have been about those who are no longer with the department. Some date back four or five years.

“The way I’ve been treated in the past year — I’ve never been treated like this,” resident Debbie Henry said at the second public hearing, on July 9.

Resident Barbara Richards had a similar complaint, saying the town “has had enough of poor police officers who are not qualified.”

“Some of the officers in the past, folks may have not been used to that type of policing,” said Charles Theobald, a full-time officer in Clinton who was hired in early June. “But what the officers may not have understood is that this is a small town, everyone knows everyone.”

Theobald, 31, is the only full-time officer working under Johnson. There are also six part-time reserve officers, including one who is a full-time officer in Oakland. Theobald said the issues the department face are difficult because of the negative perception some residents have toward the department.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “I’m the type of person that likes to get out in the community. I think that will help the image of the police department.

“It’s tough, but we have a job to do and we may need to write someone a ticket even though we know the person,” Theobald said. “If you’re able to show us respect, you’ll get the same respect 10-fold.”

Theobald began police work when in college at the University of New England in Biddeford. During his time there, he interned with the Maine Warden Service and worked part-time patrol in Wells.

“I’ve been hooked from there,” Theobald said. “I enjoy working with the communities, doing my part in the community.”

After graduating in 2005, Theobald was offered a full-time position with the Augusta Police Department, but after a couple months he left because he felt the fit was wrong. Since 2006, Theobald worked part time for Winslow’s Police Department before he joined Clinton’s staff earlier this year.

He said the response of residents so far has been “pretty positive,” despite the uneasiness surrounding the department.

“They’re glad to see somebody new on full time. Once folks get to know me a bit, they’ll open up and chat some more.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239
jscardina@mainetoday.com

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