Sabattus Police Chief Sheila Wetherbee. Sabattus Police Department

The town of Sabattus went through a quiet transformation in 2019, replacing the chiefs of the Police and Fire departments without much fanfare.

The transformation seemed complete late in the year, when one study declared the town the safest municipality in Maine. 

When the year began, the town did not yet have a full-time police chief. Former Chief Gary Baillargeon had resigned in late 2018, and while the town searched for his replacement, Lt. Sheila Wetherbee stood in as interim chief. 

In police circles, it was generally agreed Wetherbee, a longtime police officer and a well-respected one at that, would make a fine replacement. She had the full support of the police union, and in May the town made it official, confirming Wetherbee as the town’s full-time police chief. 

Wetherbee made it clear right out of the gate she takes her leadership role very, very seriously.

“I am committed to making the Sabattus Police Department the best agency in the area,” she said. “My goal is to be efficient in fighting crime, being accountable to the community we serve and being professional in how we go about our duties.

“I want to be successful at this, and be a chief officers want to work for and a department officers stay at once they swear in here.” 

Those were not just words, either. By the end of the year, Wetherbee had racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. 

The department’s focus on impaired driving particularly stands out. By the end of 2019, Sabattus police officers had arrested more than 40 people for driving while intoxicated. Officer Greg Mailhot alone made 25 of those arrest, a display of ambition that helped him earn the department’s Rookie of the Year award. 

Since Wetherbee took over, community policing has been at an all-time high. Wetherbee said she wants her department to be engaged with the public and several department programs have been helping to make that happen. They include: 

  • Coffee with a Cop: A program organized by Sabattus police Officer Peter Theriault, who also volunteers as an Oak Hill High School football coach. 
  • Adopt-An-Officer: Each day care in town has an officer assigned to it that the officer visits monthly. 
  • Community Spotlight: “My officers routinely pick a person or group to recognize — citizens, students or business owners — and post on our Facebook or Instagram page,” according to Wetherbee. 
  • Telephone Reassurance Program: For elderly, disabled and homebound residents. 
  • Toy Drive with High School: School Resource Officer John Dalbec helps organize this event each holiday season. 
  • Donated to Safe Voices (Christmas fund): The entire department took up a collection of almost $1,000 and gave to the fund. 

As proud as she is about the department’s achievements in 2019, Wetherbee says she is keenly aware of its shortcomings. 

After she was named chief, Wetherbee swore in police veteran Dan Davies as a lieutenant with the department. Davies’ police experience has been a boon to the department, the chief says, but all the experience in the world cannot help if there are not enough officers on the street. 

“The most significant issue I have had to face has been the ongoing manpower shortage,” Wetherbee said. “We have been understaffed since I have been in this position.  This puts a tremendous strain on the officers as well as the lieutenant and myself. We have officers routinely working 12-hour night shifts, and vacations and days off being denied for months at a time. 

“The lieutenant and I are trying to cover patrol shifts during the day as well as perform our duties. When you run a police department like this eventually problems begin to surface. We are spread to thin.”

Added Wetherbee: “I appreciate the team I have. I really believe they are the best officers in Androscoggin County. And I want it to be known that we are understaffed, and it’s going to get worse if we don’t get relief soon.” 

The department now has an opening for a patrol sergeant, Wetherbee said. And despite the concerns she has about the staffing shortage within the department, the chief has plenty of ambitions for the new year, including a self-defense course for women, a junior police academy and possibly a new look all around. 

“We  will continue to rebrand ourselves and send the message that we are a  new, more-progressive department,” Wetherbee said. “We have changed the look of our cruisers and will be unveiling a new badge the first of the year.  

“2020 is going to be about us finding our identity as an agency as we move  forward. I am not a police chief that dictates to my department. I do expect the officers to  be loyal, have integrity and be professionals, but I welcome feedback and want them to take ownership in their department. I want them to know they have a  say in the things that matter to them.” 

There are changes up the street from the police station, as well. In early September, Fire Chief Marc Veilleux resigned to take a job with the Office of the State Fire Marshal. A proactive and affable chief, Veilleux was popular with the community and valued by the media by offering updates on fires, car crashes and other safety matters through the department’s Facebook page. 

The search for Veilleux’s replacement continues into 2020. In the meantime, Assistant Chief Stephen Coffey has been filling in as head of the Fire Department. 

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