The homeless population, opioid epidemic and police staffing are among the challenges awaiting South Portland’s new police chief, but Daniel Ahern says they are all challenges he knows something about.

Ahern, who will assume his duties in South Portland Feb. 1, has been with the Chelmsford Police Department in Massachusetts for nearly 28 years.


“Homeless issues are not absent here in Chelmsford, and I know that South Portland is experiencing that issue as well,” Ahern said in an interview with The Forecaster this week. “Everyone’s kind of working and struggling to find that magic solution. I just don’t think that it’s out there. It’s a very, very difficult issue to solve.”

Chelmsford, like South Portland, has been sheltering unhoused people in local hotels and motels.

“I know that business communities struggle sometimes with this solution,” he said. “Is it a permanent solution? Probably not, but I think most professionals, people with more knowledge than me, will tell you that we need these transitional living spaces in areas that include … all of the wraparound resources that these people need.”

Medical and psychological services are some of the most important services police departments provide, he said.


Mental health and substance use disorders often go hand in hand, he said, and departments need to be able to supply adequate services on both fronts.

Ahern draws a comparison between PAARI, the South Portland Police Department’s initiative to stem overdoses and create awareness around substance misuse, to Chelmsford’s “The Front Line Initiative,” a partnership with four other local departments. The Chelmsford program provides access to mental health clinicians and peer recovery coaches, and services such as case management, crisis care and teletherapy.

“Every police department, if they don’t have an initiative and are not working collaboratively with their mental health professionals and their substance use disorder professionals, then they’re behind the curve,” he said.

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli stated that Ahern will be asked to “steady the ship” in a department that is facing a lot of “change over the past two years.”

“We are down staff, as are many other departments, so recruitment and retention will be ongoing challenges,” Morelli said.

At full capacity, South Portland would have 57 sworn officers, according to Deputy Chief Kevin Gerrish. Currently, they are down six.


“Everyone’s facing the same challenges now,” Ahern said. “We’ve never had to deal with recruitment and retention issues, and we’re dealing with that today, and we will be dealing with that in the future.”

A number of factors contribute to the difficulties in hiring and retaining police staff, Morelli said.

“With COVID, increased scrutiny on police officers and low unemployment, the pool is thinner than it would have been a few years ago,” he said.

The national climate around policing is sparking a change in direction for many departments, and Ahern sees this new role in South Portland as an opportunity to do just that.

A reform law in Massachusetts requires police departments in the state to meet a number of expectations in an effort to “maybe even change the definition of what policing is,” he said.

“I welcome anybody there in South Portland, any community member, in helping the South Portland Police Department meet those expectations, redefine policing, whatever that may be,” he said.


The search for a new chief was not an easy one, according to Morelli.

“There were definitely fewer applicants than one would hope to receive for such an important position,” he said.

Ahern was one of three candidates who were interviewed and was the hiring board’s top choice, he said.

Ahern said he “jumped at” the opportunity to apply for the position, citing his relationship with former South Portland Police Chief Timothy Sheehan who was with the department for 14 months up until his resignation in April 2021. Sheehan was previously chief of police in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

“He had nothing but praise for (the South Portland) department,” Ahern said.

Ahern stated that he also sees similarities between the South Portland and Chelmsford departments beyond the challenges they face.


“I can’t get over how similar the two agencies actually are,” he said. “We’re 57 men and women strong and we live right next to a major city, the city of Lowell.”

Having worked his way from patrol officer to deputy chief in Chelmsford over the course of nearly 28 years, Ahern is eager to continue climbing the ladder.

“I’ve been a deputy chief now for 7½ years, and am pretty comfortable in that role,” he said. “As they say, ‘comfort is a slow death,’ so I’m looking for a new challenge.”

During his time in Chelmsford, Ahern got plenty of experience, working as a detective, with the K-9 unit, and as a SWAT team member, among other roles, before being named deputy chief in 2014.

“I’m open-minded, I’m transparent to a fault … inclusive, collaborative, and I focus on team building,” he said. “That’s what I hope to bring up to South Portland.”

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