Fairfield police to replace aging equipment

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FAIRFIELD — During the manhunt for John Williams, the Madison man charged with killing Cpl. Eugene Cole during the early morning of April 25, Fairfield police noticed they had a different problem on their hands: Some of the gear they needed to participate in the manhunt was out-of-date or had fallen into disrepair.

According to Chief Thomas Gould, in Town Manager Michelle Flewelling’s monthly report for June, police discovered “several equipment deficiencies” about which they were unaware.

“We purchased two more sets of battle gear so every officer had extra protection and a bullet resistant helmet during the search,” Gould wrote. “I normally apply for a grant to purchase four per year and planned to order the last two this summer.”

Gould said they were two sets of combat gear short of what they needed. He said he has written grants for four new ones each of the last two years.

Additionally, Gould wrote some of the department’s portable radios and flashlights were in “poor shape” and had to be repaired and have new batteries installed. Some batteries were almost a decade old, while the average lifespan of such batteries is one to two years. To ensure this does not happen again, Gould had to start a battery rotation, and now replacement batteries will be bought every three years.

The department also now is budgeting to buy five new rifles this year. The military-issued M-16 rifles they are using date back to the 1950s and “are also in poor shape.” The rifles they have now also are fully automatic, which is not the preferred setting for patrol rifles.

In an interview, Gould said the weapons were not a part of the deficiencies during the manhunt, and the department already had been planning to replace them. The timing just happened to be at the same time the manhunt occurred.

“Using these funds, as well as old department-issued shotguns and rifles, we were able to purchase 10 patrol rifles so each officer can be issued one,” Gould wrote.

The new rifles came from A&G Shooting and Supply in Fairfield, and each rifle comes with a lifetime warranty and sighting features.

The note goes on to say that police have equipped all police cruisers with hidden electronic switches that must be activated for the vehicle to shift into drive. This step was taken in response to Williams stealing Cole’s cruiser after he allegedly shot Cole.

“This will prevent our cruisers from being stolen if a situation like this occurs,” Gould wrote. “I’m also researching GPS tracking devices that can be used to locate our vehicles quickly if officers become unresponsive to radio calls.”

During the manhunt, Yankee Communications, a Benton-based company that provides two-way radio, mobile surveillance, and public safety equipment, provided the battle gear and upgraded the radios. A&G provided patrol equipment for officers. Gould praised them and A&G for their quick service in helping the department.

Gould said the portable radios and flashlights just sit on the shelves, because the department never had had an instance when it needed to use all 10 or 15 at once. So when they needed to, officers discovered some batteries were dead and needed replacement because of the number of officers working at night.

“We just had older equipment that could have been on the ready, but we never expected we’d have to use it,” he said.

Gould said the department continues to inventory its equipment, which is something it does regularly. He said normally when something is found to be in disrepair, it goes on a list to be fixed, but the department had never gone through a manhunt like the recent before. He said the department is reassessing areas of improvement for the upkeep of its equipment.

“Just minor stuff we needed that wasn’t completely ready to go. We have a bunch of older portable radios, and we hadn’t checked them in a long time,” Gould said. “We learned from mistakes. We put them onto a rotation to check every other month.”

Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said that during and after the manhunt, the town faced the likelihood that the Police Department would go over its annual operating budget. However, she said, Gould was told not to worry about expenses during the manhunt. She said the last thing anyone in the town wanted was for police officers to be “worried about what the bottom budget looked like.”

The additional cost of reserve officers assuming the normal daily duties of policing the community was also a concern, Flewelling said. After the manhunt was over, she said, the department reassessed its inventory.

In most years, she said, the department budgets to replace things incrementally, and usually there is not an “all hands on deck” kind of event where all the equipment needs to be used. Thankfully, she said, Yankee Communications and A&G were accommodating and gave them the equipment they needed and let the town worry about the bill after.

“The vendors we had worked with us really, really well,” Flewelling said.

Flewelling said the Police Department will go over its budget. About $400 is left from the previous operating budget, which ended June 30, she said, but other expenses are coming in, and gasoline alone will come out to around $1,800; but the differences can be made up through contingency funds, and the town won’t have to call a special town meeting.

Fairfield is one of several towns that participated in the four-day manhunt for Williams, who ultimately was found in the woods on Norridgewock Road in Fairfield. An estimated 200 police officers, sheriff’s deputies and game wardens from all over Maine and from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as federal agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Border Patrol and the U.S. Marshals Service also participated in the search. Helicopters were deployed when the weather allowed it.

Williams of Madison allegedly shot Cole in the darkness of early morning while Cole was on patrol. Williams was apparently upset with Cole over arresting his girlfriend, but he said he did not have a “vendetta” against Cole, according to a recently released police affidavit. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.

According to the affidavit, Williams said “he just didn’t want or wasn’t ready to go to jail” on unrelated drug charges in Massachusetts.

Williams told police he “eliminated” Cole after Cole attempted to arrest him, but fell down, according to court documents, and then Williams pulled out a gun and shot Cole in the head.

Williams’ trial will be held in Cumberland County.

The Maine House of Representatives and Senate both approved a bill to name the bridge over the Kennebec River in Norridgewock in honor of Cole.

Fairfield police display a new tactical vest, helmet and radios Friday at the police station. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)

(Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)

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