ALFRED — Retired longtime Sheriff’s Deputy Roger Hicks  is challenging incumbent William L. King Jr. in the race for York County Sheriff.

Candidates were asked their thoughts on issues ranging from rural patrol to the use of contract deputies to how they foresee filling vacancies at York County Jail. They were asked their qualifications and why they believe they’re the best person for the job.

King, 65, a Saco Democrat, became York County Sheriff on Jan. 1, 2015, after winning the election the previous fall and is seeking his second, four-year term. He joined the agency in 2010 as a major and was later named chief deputy. He began his law enforcement career with Portland Police Department, was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and retired from the U.S. Department of Justice. King has testified about scams impacting the elderly before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.

William L. King Jr.

He implemented a quarterly recognition program for corrections and patrol staff, switched staff to a less formal, more comfortable uniform that also saves money and vehicles to SUVs that he says are more suited to unpaved roads, inclement weather and protecting police equipment from extreme temperature variations. He said he has forged partnerships with organizations like AARP and NAMI-Maine to bring awareness and provide training to local law enforcement officers.

Roger Hicks

Hicks, 60, a Hollis Republican, worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 25 years, retiring at the rank of sergeant in 2012. He was a selectman in Hollis and has been a Hollis firefighter for 30 years. He was a member of the MSAD 6 Budget Committee, the York County Budget Committee and spent 11 years with the York County Haz-Mat team. Among his duties at the Sheriff’s Office were stints as the DARE officer and later as a school resource officer. He was an Independent candidate for York County commissioner in 2014, coming in third in the three-way race.

The elected sheriff presides over the patrol division, which includes both rural patrol and deputies contracted by municipalities, the corrections division at York County Jail and the civil process division. Together, the rural patrol, jail and civil process budgets total close to $14 million.

At present, the corrections division is down about 20 of their 76-officer staff.

“Staffing the second largest jail in Maine is challenging,” said King, who noted that the county has recently introduced a $1,500 sign-on bonus program to try and attract staff.

“All law enforcement and corrections jobs are having difficulty recruiting and retaining employees. Some attribute the shallow candidate pool to the anti-police sentiment gripping the nation,” he said. “It is a difficult and structured job that is not attractive to many candidates.”

King said he has been told in exit interviews with those leaving that they’re going on to other jobs — some to law enforcement, others to industries where the pay may be higher and health insurance premiums less costly. He said the sign-on bonus and longevity increases for tenured officers are part of the solution and that talks have begun with the corrections union on other possible measures.

“We need to stop the bleeding immediately,” said Hicks.“This administration has had a turnover of close to 51 percent of it’s entire staff and it’s unacceptable. We need to be doing exit interviews with an independent committee along with the human resources department to get truthful answers as to why our corrections officers are leaving,” Hicks said. “We must then work with the commissioners and citizens to find a solution to best serve our CO’s and taxpayers. The turnaround is putting us in a crisis situation and we need someone that can bring it to an end. Investing in our people and finding their needs is critical to retention within the jail and all of YCSO.”

We asked candidates their thoughts on the biggest challenge facing the sheriff of York County.

“The biggest challenge facing the sheriff is budgetary constraints,” said King. “While I have operated continually within budget, we could provide much better policing service and address the retention challenges we have with corrections officers with increased funding. Through partnerships with the FBI and the State of Maine, we have been able to supplement our policing efforts and I will continue to enterprise low-cost solutions to ensure the York County community members are protected.”

Hicks sees it another way.

“I feel that the staff has been overworked and under-appreciated for the past four years,” said Hicks. “We are burning our people out faster than we can replace them. The answer lies with a fair open conversation with the staff and commissioners to find a solution that benefits the taxpayer, all while taking care of the great men and woman who truly put their life on the line for us every day. This comes down to trust in your sheriff by the staff. I would always lead with an open honest communications with the staff. Bringing the community back to community policing is the answer because together we can do it better by understanding the needs of the department.”

In recent years, York County commissioners have seemed to prefer contract deputies, where municipalities pay the salary and benefits of individual officers and for the vehicle they drive to patrol for a specific number of hours per week, rather than adding to the rural patrol ranks. We asked candidates whether they believe this impacts the operation and if so, how?

“I think contract deputies build relationships between the towns and the Sheriff’s Office,” said Hicks. “They are more of an enhancer to rural patrol but when the contract deputies are not on duty that puts extra stress on the other deputies to cover that area. The county has not added any new rural patrol deputies for many years. The other issue is, if towns do not approve a contract from year to year, the Sheriff’s Office loses a deputy which then causes a domino effect and stress on the department as it is not a stable force multiplier. There isn’t money in the budget to cover that deputy so the newest person would be laid off (after we paid to train them), causing loss in taxpayers’ dollars.”

“While I respect that the county commissioners are the fiscal agents of the county, I do believe that contracting with towns for patrol coverage in lieu of creating new rural patrol deputies does impact the policing services operation,” said King. He pointed out that annually, contract sheriff’s deputy positions are in jeopardy of not being funded because — with the exception of an officer assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the RSU 57 School Resource Officer — each position hinges on a town meeting vote. “If one of those contracts fails to pass, it requires a reallocation of resources to fill the patrol schedule and could result in a reduction in force,” he said.

King proposes “retooling” the contract deputy program. “One suggestion would be to assign a team of deputies to patrol several contract towns, with the towns paying for the team, not an individual deputy. This would provide opportunities for team members to form strategic partnerships with community members to address specific issues in a town. Without geographical constraints, the team could act upon intelligence immediately and patrol where needed.”

We asked if the combination of rural patrol and contract deputies provides adequate staffing.

“Absolutely not,” Hicks responded. “The contract towns are only filling a void and paying the bill for the current administration. I do not feel it’s proper for a town to pay and not get what is expected.”

Hicks said he has been told that contract deputies are required to work zones (or regular patrol) and cover vacancies in the shift on a regular basis. “I am told it happens often,” he said. “The current administration is using the town contracts to fill an understaffing challenge and costing those towns huge deficiencies in their paid for patrol. Before we do any more contracts, we must first build the base, so we are not shortchanging the towns as we are now.”

King said contract deputies on duty in their communities do not typically venture into other areas unless there is an emergency. He said there have been some occasions where the public may see a contract deputy cruiser in another town, among a contingent of officers doing a grant-funded special detail for speeding or similar effort.

“Our deputies do an outstanding job of responding to calls for service and maintaining order in our communities,” said King. “However, to be a full-service police department, we should have a more robust investigations division, additional specialized positions, and time to foster more community engagement. Our current staffing level limits us to basically answering calls for service. Deputies often initiate follow up investigations only to be pulled away for a priority call. Additional staffing would allow deputies to conduct a more thorough follow up, increase officer safety, and allow for more opportunities to actively engage with the community.”

Candidates were asked what they believed is the biggest law enforcement hurdle, whether in corrections or patrol.

“Addiction and (the) crime cycle,” said Hicks. “It’s no surprise that the opiate epidemic is the leading problem facing communities across the Unites States. This problem does not discriminate and creates a serious impact on individuals, their families and service providers to include police and corrections. Addiction often feeds crime (burglary, assault and theft) which is the underlying problem of many offenders in our county jails and prisons. Reducing addiction will ultimately lower interaction with law enforcement in turn lessening the expense of correctional costs. It will take a concerted effort working hand in hand with the community to find proper solutions to bring this to a resolution. I will work with a compassionate heart as I know this problem can hit any family within York County along with the entire state.”

King said staffing levels and working conditions are not where they should be because of budgets that haven’t allowed for growth.

“The hurdle I face is ensuring safe staffing levels in the jail and on the streets so our deputies and officers return to their families at the end of their shifts,” said King. “The opioid crisis we are battling increases the risk to our deputies and corrections staff. Drug interdiction efforts have stepped-up on our highways, diverting many of the drug couriers to use rural roads to ply their wares. Each traffic stop our deputies make could pose a significant danger. The same holds true for our corrections officers — I’ve said many times before, the York County Jail is holding individuals with significant criminal histories. I look forward to addressing these hurdles, as they require a sheriff with an education background and experience to properly address these contemporary policing and corrections challenges. “

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

 

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