FARMINGTON — If someone is meeting up with an unknown person to exchange an online purchase, or if a contentiously separated couple is meeting to exchange belongings, legal documents or even children, they could be walking into a potentially unsafe situation.

But for residents of Franklin County who need to partake in these situations for whatever reason, the recent establishment of a “safe zone” outside of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Farmington ensures that individuals have a secure place equipped with surveillance to meet.

The area between the sheriff’s 0ffice building and the Franklin County Communication center on County Way was established as the safe zone earlier this month.

Sheriff Scott Nichols said he feels that designating the area, which is already monitored by surveillance cameras, will be an easy way the department can offer protection to residents of Franklin County.

“You never know. You can’t trust anyone these days, it seems like,” he said. “So let’s provide something or a place or some sort of means that doesn’t cost anyone a penny, and just give them a little bit more security when they’re doing their exchanges.”

Nichols said he has heard of other departments establishing safe zones for the exchange end of internet sales, but given the prevalence of domestic violence within Franklin County, he thought the idea of a safe zone would translate well into situations where a relationship has broken down but contact still needs to be made.

Security cameras point at the Franklin County Sheriff Department's newly established safe zone.

Security cameras point at the Franklin County Sheriff Department’s newly established safe zone. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Augusta Police Department enacted a similar safe zone in March 2015 when they designated their lobby as an exchange zone. The department had already been used by parents as a meeting place to exchange children, but the lobby was officially established as an exchange zone in response to the increase in online sales.

Augusta Deputy Police Chief Jared Mills said the establishment of the zone has been well received, though the police do not track the exact rate at which the area is used because they feel the area will operate better if it is just offered and not supervised by officers per se.

Mills said the zone is an attempt to not only provide a safe area for individuals meeting with people they do not know, but to deter the chances that an instance of fraud or assault will occur in an exchange scenario.

“The logic behind it is who is going to commit a crime in the lobby of a police department,” Mills said.

The Franklin safe zone, however, is not to be used by people who have protection orders or court orders prohibiting contact with the person they are meeting.

Nichols said while he does not feel that domestic violence within the county is on the rise, he said it is a large and constant problem his deputies handle frequently. However, in many cases, whether it is the exchange of property, legal paperwork or children, contact must still be made even if there is a risk that an interaction could escalate.

“If they’re freshly separated, it’s property (being exchanged), and then once their divorce is complete, it’s usually an exchange of children. We’ve had occasions where people do this exchange in person, and the next thing you know the estranged spouses start a verbal or domestic tiff,” he said.

Typically, these exchanges take place in large parking lots that the public has access to, Nichols said. But meeting in a public place doesn’t always mean the meeting is conducted in safety. With over a half dozen cameras videotaping every angle of the sheriff office’s safe zone, any interaction that occurs within the area will be documented.

In the instance that an exchange takes a threatening or violent turn, the individual must let the department know so the footage can be retrieved and used if necessary for prosecution.

“This keeps everyone on their best behavior. No one is going to want to come out here and get flippy with someone, especially if they are on camera being watched,” Nichols said.

For individuals using the safe zone for the exchange of internet purchases, Nichols said the area being located at a law enforcement department also has its perks. If another party feels uncomfortable meeting at the sheriff’s department, an individual should view that as a red flag that the person may have questionable intentions, he said.

Franklin County residents will be able to use the safe zone 24/7 and do not have to make an appointment to use the area. Nichols asks that safe zone users alert the sheriff’s department as soon as possible if an exchange escalates because the surveillance cameras recycle footage after two or three weeks.