June 12, 2011

State's police chief looks outside the box

Col. Robert Williams, who grew up in Pittsfield, looks to honor old ways, adopt new ones

AUGUSTA -- New Maine State Police Col. Robert Williams said he will honor the state's largest law enforcement agency's legacy and embrace emerging technology.

The 27-year veteran said he feels honored to be entrusted to lead the force that formed in 1921 and has core values of integrity, fairness, compassion and excellence.

"The original troopers set up the state police for success," said Williams, who last month was named to lead the organization. "They were tough mentally and physically and they had vision."

Williams said it's imperative the agency, which faces budget constraints and has fewer troopers now than several decades ago, be a leader and be efficient.

The agency, said Williams, can use the immediacy and far-reaching power of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help solve crimes. He cited technology's role in helping to learn the identity of Camden Hughes, 6, the boy found dead in May along a road in South Berwick.

If a system is created so citizens could file minor complaints online, Williams said troopers' driving time and fuel costs could be reduced.

"We're so used to being a face-to-face organization, but it would be cheaper to send a gift card (to replace a damaged mailbox) than to send a trooper to drive an hour (to handle the case)," he said.

The 18th colonel of the state police said troopers are also called to handle parenting and social service issues, including out-of-control children and teens trying to avoid school.

It's not that way everywhere; Williams said leaders of large metropolitan agencies say their officers respond to complaints when there is blood or a felony.

Williams, a graduate of Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, the University of Maine at Augusta, Husson University and the FBI National Academy in Virginia, said the Maine State Police will focus on preventing and investigating crime as well as charging those responsible.

He said there is a perception that the state police focuses on highway patrol, but it also investigates homicides and child abuse and collects evidence at crime scenes. It has specialty dive, tactical, crisis negotiation, K-9, and bomb teams, as well as a computer crimes unit, and provides executive protection for the governor.

He said he would like to expand the Computer Crimes Task Force, which primarily investigates child abuse and child pornography cases.

As chief, Williams said he will lead by example, including continuing to drive his cruiser with 80,000-plus miles on it.

"The people who drive 100 miles per hour every day should have the new cars," he said.

New cruisers and purchases of weapons and other equipment have fallen off pace during the recession. The last two years, Williams said gas was budgeted at $1.75 per gallon for the state police. The department, he said, went over that budget line by about $300,000 and had to use money budgeted for equipment to fuel the cruisers.

One major expense that will lead to improved safety and service, said Williams, is a $50 million upgrade to the state's radio communication system. The current system, he said, was created in the 1970s and had a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. Williams said the new system, which should be in place by next fall, will eliminate dead spots and interference in southern Maine from New Hampshire's police radio system.

The Maine State Police made an early and lasting impression on Williams.

Growing up in Pittsfield, he remembers troopers visiting his father, Bernard, who was a local police officer.

"They handled themselves differently," said Williams, who decided in high school to pursue a career with the organization. "They seemed to command more respect."

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