March 18, 2013

Caution prevents most Maine towns from granting officers statewide arrest power

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

WINTHROP — Few local law enforcement agencies in Maine have statewide arrest powers of the sort that Winthrop grants its officers.

Town officials said recently they would review the local policy following stories by the Kennebec Journal about a sting operation in Gardiner organized by Chief Joseph Young, of the Winthrop police. The sting was set up by Young as a favor to recover stolen golf clubs belonging to the son of Winthrop's town attorney, and it ended in a supermarket parking lot with Young drawing his gun on an innocent man who had bought the clubs at a pawn shop.

No one was arrested or charged, and authorities have closed the case without seeking to find the real thief.

Winthrop councilors Sarah Fuller and Larry Fitzgerald earlier this month asked to review the policy, and the council is expected to do that at its next meeting, on April 1. Fuller said she received questions from constituents about police jurisdiction after publication of the stories about the sting operation, which was coordinated with Gardiner police at the last minute.

"A number of councilors have gotten contacted by constituents, and I think it's incumbent on us to look for further information and see if it has been effective and whether it warrants any change," she said. "Because it's in the spotlight, it's worth it for all of us to learn more about why the law is what it is."

Fuller said she was not previously aware of statewide arrest powers rules adopted by Winthrop and wants to know more about how they've been useful for law enforcement.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Association of Chiefs of Police, estimated that 30 municipal police departments in Maine have those powers. There are 122 police departments in the state, according to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

State law allows any officer to make arrests outside his or her jurisdiction when in "fresh pursuit" of a suspect. A law passed in 2003 allows municipal and county officials to grant statewide powers to police officers and sheriff's deputies who have qualifications, such as working full time.

Schwartz said when the chiefs association was lobbying for passage of the statewide-arrest law, there was resistance from critics who worried about abuse of power. The law was amended to allow local governments to opt in, rather than requiring them to opt out.

"It's just a situation where people are leery," he said. "You don't want cowboys running all over the place and people with guns and badges making arrests all over the place."

At the request of Young, the Winthrop Town Council unanimously approved such a policy a few months after the law passed a decade ago. Winthrop's Police Department has a police chief, an assistant police chief and seven full-time officers, according to the department's website.

Council Chairman Kevin Cookson, a former sheriff's deputy who was also on the council in 2003, said he thinks it would be a mistake to do away with the policy.

He compared it to prohibiting police officers from carrying guns.

"Maybe it's because I'm prior law enforcement, but I think it would be ridiculous to rescind a policy that helps law enforcement do their job," Cookson said.

Policy questions

Leaders of most police agencies in the Augusta area have not seen the need for statewide-arrest policies. Police departments in Augusta, Gardiner and Hallowell do not have them, nor does the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office.

The situation in nearby Monmouth is unclear. Police Chief Kevin Mulherin said he and another Monmouth officer have statewide arrest powers and have made use of them since he became chief in 2011.

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