Some law enforcement agencies in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties continue to curtail arrests and implement other strategies in an effort to lower jail populations due to COVID-19 concerns. Other agencies have begun to return to prepandemic procedures and policies, with some saying they might continue permanently with some changes adopted last year.

For instance, agencies said making more summonses and fewer arrests when appropriate during the pandemic reduced jail numbers and costs, while videoconferences for inmate court hearings reduced staff use and costs, and increased safety.

“This pandemic has forced our hand and, I think, for the better on some things,” said Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright. “I think we really need to look at some lessons learned and I think we’ve all seen what we can live with and what we can live without.”

Sheriff Eric Samson at his desk last April at the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s office in Auburn. Samson says his department made some adjustments because of the pandemic, but warns it is too soon to return to prepandemic protocols.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo  Buy this Photo

Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department

In Androscoggin County, Sheriff Eric Samson said it’s too soon to go back to prepandemic protocols.

“We are still following guidelines, as much as practical, regarding the precautionary measures taken due to the pandemic,” Samson said. “It isn’t over yet.”

His patrol officers are continuing to exercise discretion in making arrests while using recommended personal protective equipment on the job.

Yet, the numbers of inmates at Androscoggin County Jail are back up, closer to prepandemic levels, he said.

On Tuesday, the headcount was 139, he said.

“We only have so many holding cells. And if our holding fills up, we can’t send people into the (general) population, because we can’t get their test results back soon enough,” he said.

“If anything, we’re testing more in the jail because we need to create the room for holding.”

Lewiston Police Department

Lewiston Police Department spokesman Lt. David St. Pierre said his agency is continuing with policies and protocols adopted after the pandemic struck the community more than a year ago.

Lewiston police officers “avoid arrest unless they’re crimes against people, where people were injured,” he said. “So, anything like OAS (operating after suspension) or something like that generally we’re summonsing people to keep the population down in the jails, still.”

“We haven’t made any revelations like, ‘OK, let’s open things up,’ and, ‘Business as usual, charge people, arrest them and bring them to jail,’” he said.

“So it’s still the same” measures as adopted during the pandemic.

Auburn Police Department

In Auburn, Deputy Police Chief Timothy Cougle said his department is slowly easing back into a prepandemic posture.

“In March of 2020, we began to shift our operations, specifically around proactive enforcement,” he said.

Over the past year, “officers were instructed to issue criminal summonses with a court date rather than making physical arrests when possible,” he said. “This was done to help reduce exposures and to assist with (lowering) the jail population.”

Vehicle stops for minor traffic violations “were discouraged,” he said. And officers were issued N95 masks, safety glasses and rubber gloves to help reduce their exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Data comparing the year before the pandemic with the current year show that in Auburn, arrests and traffic stops went down (54% and 27% respectively), while summons issued went up 8%. (See chart.)

Activity 2019-2020 2020-2021 Percent change
Arrests at the time of an incident 439 204 down 54%
Arrests after an incident 361 166 down 54%
Summonses 625 672 up 8%
Traffic stops 4,939 3,610 down 27%
Total # arrests and summonses 1,425 1,042 down 27%

 

But that has started to change.

“This week, we have begun a slow return to a more normal level of operations,” Cougle said. That means beefing up traffic enforcement activity and stepping up selected traffic enforcement details including grant-funded details for speeding, distracted driving and operating under the influence enforcement.

“We have recently seen an uptick in speeding and other traffic-related complaints from the public,” he said.

Oxford County Sheriff’s Department

In Oxford County, Sheriff Christopher Wainwright said his patrol officers are getting “back on track.”

Most of the officers have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for weeks, “so it does change the procedure there. We don’t have to quarantine. We don’t have to do a bunch of things if there is an exposure.”

When the pandemic reached Oxford County last year, the “only real shift we had originally was we asked agencies to summons whenever possible and not make the arrests if they could handle it in that way … and the chiefs of police did the same,” he said.

“We were all trying to not make the arrest unless we absolutely had to … (such as with) domestics (domestic violence cases) and when people were visibly intoxicated or we knew that the problem was going to continue.”

While there will be a return to more normal policing procedures, Wainwright said some of the protocols put in place during the pandemic might make sense to keep in place after the risk of contagion has passed.

He said some state lawmakers are advocating for the practice of fewer arrests to continue.

“I do think that we’re going to see a shift in that,” he said. “It’s very expensive to keep people incarcerated, and I think that the pandemic has opened up some different avenues for law enforcement.”

One change Wainwright would endorse making permanent is the use of videoconferences for court hearings instead of transporting inmates from jails and prisons to the courtroom, when possible.

“When we herd everybody over to the court to hear the judge and they plead not guilty and walk back, that takes a lot of man hours, exposes a lot of people to risk for health reasons as well as many other things, when normally they could do a video arraignment,” he said.

It likely would help out the courts as well, he said, because an inmate in South Paris could go before a judge who is sitting in Portland or Bangor.

An inmate at a state prison who is scheduled to have a hearing in South Paris would be able to stay safely behind bars while appearing in an Oxford County courtroom by videoconference, he said, saving money, time and risk.

“This is something we deal with every single day, possible exposures, contact tracing, it’s a nightmare,” he said. “And we’re spending a lot of time doing that. But having the ability to do that video arraignment makes sense. It really does.”

Wainwright noted, “This pandemic has forced our hand and I think, for the better on some things. I think we really need to look at some lessons learned and I think we’ve all seen what we can live with and what we can live without.”

Oxford Police Department

In the town of Oxford, police Chief Michael Ward expected call numbers would drop during the pandemic. That was not the case. Calls for service in 2020 during the pandemic rose slightly and topped out at 3,995 compared to 3,918 during 2019.

“I was surprised we were so busy,” Ward said. “I thought, for sure, with COVID here and with people staying home and socially distancing, that our calls for service would decrease, but they didn’t.”

Oxford police were still stopping people and making arrests when appropriate during the pandemic, but some methods of policing were adjusted to try to keep everyone safe.

Ward pointed to the use of more “remote law enforcement.” If possible, Ward’s officers would conduct their interactions with the public on the phone, but would go to homes if requested.

“We’re going to continue on the course we’re on right now until we hear from the governor or the state,” Ward said.

Rumford Police Department

Rumford has also been using remote law enforcement if the call can be handled efficiently and appropriately, said police Chief Tony Milligan. For example, if the public needs to provide a statement for something they are involved with or a witness to, they can file it electronically through the department’s website instead of going to the station or having an officer come to their home.

Rumford Police Chief Tony Milligan Submitted photo

When the numbers of infections began to dip a couple of months ago and people began getting vaccinated, Rumford stepped up its public enforcement.

“As far as our daily operations and the different programs that we have and the enforcement activities that we conduct, there was a time when we kind of hit pause when the numbers were really out of control,” Milligan said. “Since they have come down and stabilized in recent months, we picked most of those (activities) back up. We’re still taking precautions as far as disinfectants and with the masks, but we are doing traffic enforcement. We are responding to calls. There is nothing that we’re not doing because of COVID.”

Like many police departments, Rumford increased the number of summonses it issued for minor crimes instead of making an arrest and having to transport that individual to the Oxford County Jail. That limited potential spread of the virus among police, correction officers and inmates.

“You don’t have to bring someone to jail if you can accomplish the same thing and ensure public safety and the integrity of the judicial process by summoning someone versus taking them to jail, just so they can be processed and released 30 minutes later,” Milligan said. “That’s what we did at Rumford PD. It’s a half-hour, 45-minute drive to the jail, so it’s not terribly convenient for us to bring minor violators to jail.”

Calls for service “have not skipped a beat,” Milligan said. He is hopeful with the weather getting warmer and people getting outside more, that numbers will drop as people feel less caged up and not so “short fused.”

“Everyone is doing their part,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation. I think we’ve managed it quite well having never experienced something like this before. Once we got past the PPE challenges we faced early finding availability, I like to think we’ve handled things quite well, and the public has as well.”

Farmington Police Department

Farmington Deputy Police Chief Shane Cote said the department responded to the pandemic in various ways, though things have pretty much returned to normal.

“We did slow down our proactive enforcement” to limit exposure and to keep people safe, but continued to make arrests when warranted, Cote said last week, noting that police issued summonses for some crimes when appropriate.

“We were stopping vehicles” but only for really serious violations, he added.

Cote said he didn’t see a change in the number of cases handled in the year before COVID-19 versus the current year.

One internal change, Cote said: “We were bailing people from the station.”

If an arrest was made, the person was brought to the station instead of the jail and a bail commissioner would come to the station, because the Franklin County jail was either closed or only taking those charged with higher-level crimes and crimes that required arrest by statute.

In mid-January, the jail experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. It was closed for two weeks and reopened on Feb. 3 following a deep cleaning and after everyone, including staff, completed quarantining.

Cote said that if someone was suspected of operating under the influence, they were taken to the Franklin County Jail where the Intoxilyzer machine is and then brought back to the department.

“We are back to normal now,” he said.

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