Monday, March 10, 2014
We’ve got a lot of law enforcement in Maine, but it is inefficient and ineffective in focusing on our most critical needs.
On the way to a meeting in Portland two weeks ago, shortly after exiting Interstate 95 in Gardiner and entering Interstate 295, I saw seven state troopers and vehicles in the northbound lanes, handing out speeding tickets. They may have been using a helicopter, too.
Many drivers in my southbound lanes actually picked up speed, knowing there were no troopers ahead in our direction. Of course, this did not include me.
I did think, however, that it was a waste of expensive, highly trained law enforcement officers. Later, a friend who is a retired trooper told me these traffic teams “collect a lot of money.” So, like many officers these days, we’ve turned troopers into the revenue police.
Perhaps we should all just purchase annual $150 speeding permits, and let the troopers do more important work. Clearly, they are not slowing us down on the highways, although my retired trooper friend argued that point.
Gov. Paul LePage, in his State of the State speech last week, proposed adding 14 new positions to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Boy, do I know where we could get half of them, without creating new positions!
Given that almost as many people died last year from drugs as from traffic accidents, it would make sense to move some of those highway patrol officers over to the more urgent need to curb drug use and crime.
The DEA has only 32 agents, while we have 341 state troopers. Yes, I know a lot of them work on a host of crimes from homicides to domestic violence. But still, given the terrific drug problems we are experiencing, these numbers seem just a tad uneven.
And then there are all the other law enforcement officers we fund, including game and marine patrol wardens, sheriff’s deputies, and town and city police. I noticed a recent news story about a nearby fire department that had just purchased an expensive all-terrain vehicle so firefighters could rescue injured riders on snowmobile and ATV trails.
Gosh, I thought that’s what game wardens did.
But then I got to thinking about this. It makes sense to locate rescue services as close as possible to the people who need rescuing. The Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund has awarded a number of grants to municipal police departments for ATVs when they agreed to use them to police local trails, relieving game wardens from that job. That makes sense, too. Which brought me to this question.
Why don’t we tackle the law enforcement needs of the state in a comprehensive, cooperative, efficient manner, by getting all of these agencies and officers into a single unit, where our priorities could change from time to time, as our law enforcement needs change?
Instead of cooperating, now they often compete. When he was governor, Angus King discovered 78 firetrucks could be found within 30 miles of the Capitol.
The issue is particularly pertinent because the Legislature and governor are about to arm the state’s forest rangers, turning them into the forest police — another group of highly trained, well-equipped, expensive law enforcement officers who will spend almost all of their time on matters that require neither a lot of training nor a firearm.
And that reminded me of the time I was up Rangeley way on the remote Rapid River when I encountered two game wardens, both checking fishing licenses. Each of these officers cost us more than $125,000 per year (salary, retirement, benefits, training and equipment). But we really don’t need to spend that much on someone to check licenses and the fish in an angler’s creel. That requires almost no training and no more equipment than a ruler. And we don’t need two officers working on it together.
Game wardens spend a significant amount of time searching for marijuana patches, so perhaps some of them could be turned toward more serious drug offenses, too.
I admire and respect the terrific job our law enforcement officers do, handling homicides, horrific car wrecks, bad poaching rings, drug dealing and more. I just think we could dial back on the revenue side of the police ledger, employ fewer highly trained officers for a lot of the things that now take up too much of the well-trained officers time, and get a lot more law enforcement for our money.George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or email@example.com. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.