Lt. Fred Dunn finished a two-decade career with the Topsham Police Department this month. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

TOPSHAM — Before the crack of dawn late last week, Fred Dunn and his teenage son were due to pack up their vehicle and begin a long drive to Florida – and a new chapter in their lives.

In the 49-year-old Harpswell man’s rear view mirror was a 26-year career as a police officer, 21 of them in Topsham, where the lieutenant concluded his time June 12. It’s a line of work that brought its mix of rewards and challenges; the latter most recently from the public outcry over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And while Dunn said “never say never” to a possible return to law enforcement, he now seeks a new path.

Dunn’s wife, Janelle, took a good job in southwest Florida about a year ago, while he remained in Maine as his son, Alex, continued at Mt. Ararat High. Reuniting the family on a full-time basis was one reason to conclude his time with the Topsham Police. Plus, Dunn found he needed a change.

“I just wanted to go and enjoy myself for a while,” he said, smiling, “until (my wife) makes me get a job.”

Dunn – who initially sought a career in business and was inspired by a family member to explore law enforcement – started with the Topsham Police in 1996, then spent 1997-2000 as an officer in Washington, D.C., before returning to Topsham. The son and grandson of police officers, he rose through the ranks, becoming lieutenant in 2013.

While the recent backlash against police didn’t necessarily play a part in Dunn’s decision to leave the field, “I feel that it’s a good time to get out of law enforcement,” he said. Dunn isn’t soured on police work, but “26 years is a long time, and I just want to try something different.”

Watching the video of Officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, “you … ask yourself, what was this guy thinking,” Dunn said. “That’s wrong on so many different levels. As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘this is going to be bad.'”

The transgressions of one police officer can unfortunately cause everyone in that field to be judged, Dunn said, noting that “now, with everything that’s going on, law enforcement officers in some people’s eyes are perceived as racist, heavy-handed, criminals.”

In his time with the profession, he has watched respect for officers decrease as scrutiny has increased, and a marked drop in new recruits: 20-30 people would apply for a position in 1994, he recalled, and “now … you’re lucky you get three.”

Policies governing police work need to be stricter, Dunn said. While some departments might have fired an officer after a second wrongdoing such as use of excessive force, others might only have suspended that person after five incidents, he explained.

In some cases, “they’ll have somebody that’s an issue at their department, and they’ll say ‘go away, or you’re going to be fired,'” Dunn said. “So they’ll let them go away, so there’s no mark on their record, but then down the street another department hires them, and it happens all over again, where this officer gets himself into trouble and they say ‘go away.’ Those things need to change, definitely.”

As of Wednesday, there has been one Black Lives Matter protest outside the Topsham station, but the organizer was respectful and ensured that those who rallied remained peaceful, Dunn said. “I don’t take offense to people protesting, and things like that, at all,” he said. “I don’t take it personally, because I understand why (they’re protesting), because what happened to (Floyd) shouldn’t happen to anybody.”

“It’s tough times, there’s no doubt about it,” said Topsham Police Chief Chris Lewis, who Dunn replaced as lieutenant in 2013. “You worry about the short- and long-term effect; are people going to start going into early retirement?”

Lewis had already faced recruitment issues in late 2018, when his department was four members shy of its 16-officer roster. The agency returned to full capacity, but “now, with everything that’s going on, is it going to be more difficult to recruit and retain younger officers?” he asked.

“We’ll just continue on one day at a time and see what we can do,” Lewis said. “Obviously we want to make sure that everyone is trained, and you get good quality candidates. It is a concern, because there’s just a lot of negativity, so I’m sure that weighs heavy on people’s minds as they’re looking to maybe get into this line of work.”

Having worked closely with Dunn for two decades, the chief praised his “wealth of knowledge and information. … He’s going to be greatly missed.”

Lewis said he is working with Town Manager Derek Scrapchansky on a plan to replace Dunn.

The community members with whom Dunn has worked and forged friendships are what he will miss most. “I won’t miss the confrontational stuff,” he said.

While his outlook as an officer in his early 20s had been “to catch somebody doing something wrong,” he said, that view changed over time.

Dunn found it ultimately more beneficial to “help them out, and give them a break,” depending on the seriousness of the transgression, he said. And to “let them know that you’re not just out there to slap handcuffs on somebody or write summonses.”

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