ELLSWORTH — Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane withdrew his request to purchase riot gear for his officers before a heated debate during Tuesday’s county commissioners’ meeting.

The board did approve hiring and outfitting a new deputy, another contentious issue.

During an interview last week, Kane said the “riot gear” included helmets with face shields, batons and protective gloves.

“That’s what I was going to ask for. It’s not something that’s used to be aggressive towards the public,” he said.

Kane said there may be times when protests “go south,” when residents are protesting peacefully, but there are “antagonizers.”

“More than likely you’ll never see it,” he said. “It’s to protect my officers and the people.”

The meeting got off to a rocky start.

The commissioners took comments from a few handfuls of the 66 citizens who tuned in for the meeting, which was held via Zoom. It was one of the largest groups of citizens ever to attend one the board’s regular monthly meetings. Public concerns have been fueled, at least in part, by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A police officer has been charged with second degree murder in Floyd’s death.

The format of the meeting was a challenge. The commissioners did not have an orderly way to take public comments on Zoom and ensure that everyone who wanted to speak got a chance.

Chairman Bill Clark was concerned about the time that the meeting would take if everyone received three minutes to speak – the board already had a full agenda in addition to the sheriff’s request for additional gear as well as to hire a new deputy to fulfill a town contract.

“Are we prepared to sit here this morning and listen to comments for three hours on one topic?” asked Clark.

“Yes,” Commissioner Antonio Blasi replied.

An item to hire a new deputy to fulfill a patrol contract with the town of Stonington proved rancorous.

Blasi disagreed about a new hire.

“Although budgeted, the cash flow at this time, with an outstanding TAN (Tax Anticipation Note), the cost is not advisable,” Blasi said. “The sheriff can use the DARE deputy for patrol on a full-time basis.”

Blasi listed the expenditures involved in hiring a new deputy, which included additional equipment such as a rifle, pistol and bulletproof vest.

“I have received 26 communications to me personally requesting reduced funding for the police to use taxpayer dollars to fund other crisis and interventions,” Blasi said.

Kane said the DARE officer does do patrols.

“I know apparently you want to unfund and defund law enforcement,” Kane said to Blasi. “On two occasions you’ve called my office to remove a person from the commissioners’ office you were fearful of. After a second incident you came down and asked my chief deputy for a bulletproof vest.”

“Why is your personal safety more important than that of my deputies?” Kane asked.

Blasi replied, “I was fearful of being shot at and if you had an extra, perhaps you could lend it to me.”

Clark interjected.

“I’m going to rule this conversation out of order,” the chairman said. “I think its obvious Commissioner Blasi is not going to approve this. Commissioner Wombacher I need your feelings.”

“I think we have to fulfill the contract with Stonington,” Wombacher said. “I know we have a changing role with the state police, which is putting more strain on the sheriff’s department”

Resident Leslie Ross asked if the board would take public comment before the vote.

“We’re only going to be purchasing the equipment to outfit this new deputy we’ve hired,” Clark said. “I personally don’t think it requires any additional explanation.” At the end of the meeting, Clark explained that he didn’t think it fair for non-Stonington residents to comment on an expenditure that Stonington taxpayers were funding.

Wombacher told Clark the board had “an unusual circumstance” with the number of people attending the meeting. “In my two years we’ve had maybe a third this many people making public comment.”

Deputy County Administrator Rebekah Knowlton suggested everyone who wanted to comment email their names so that commissioners could call on each one to comment in order.

Resident Lawson Wulsin said he would like to see the commissioners shift funding from the police toward existing community service agencies with a specific target of “supporting black and indigenous people of color in our community.”

Resident Robin Furth asked why the department needed to purchase new firearms for the new deputy. “Aren’t there leftovers from the last person who held the position?” Furth asked.

Kane replied that the budget committee had approved a new deputy because the Maine State Police cut back on their services, resulting in more calls for the sheriff’s office to handle.

Leslie Ross, Hancock County case coordinator for the Restorative Justice Project, also spoke.

“The sheer number of people here is an indication the people would like a voice,” Ross said.

Ross suggested that the county create a “crisis intervention policy manual with a chapter on crowd management.”

That led to the idea of forming a committee with both members of the public and government officials. Ross said the group should “further explore policing needs in Hancock County.”

Rachel Singh of Franklin said, “like other people have said, I’ve been quite shaken … with the deaths of citizens at the hands of police as well as the way the protests have happened.”

“We are not immune to those problems in Hancock County,” Singh said. “One of the greatest threats to our democracy is apathy. Like many other people I was concerned and thinking hard about how I can support our law enforcement agencies to protect everyone in our community.”

Singh said she was disappointed that everyone wasn’t allowed to comment at the beginning of the meeting. “I appreciate the sheriff’s openness.”

Another woman told Kane she was worried about the effects of using tear gas on nearby populations.

Kane said he never asked for tear gas nor would he.

As far as the “riot gear” items that were requested—the helmets with face shields, batons and gloves—there is no plan at this point to put that request on a future meeting agenda, according to the sheriff.


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