The staffing crisis at Cumberland County Jail is frustrating Portland police officers who say intake limits forced them to release a man who became violent and threatening after his arrest this week on charges that usually would have kept him behind bars.

Interim Portland Police Chief F. Heath Gorham Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham took the unusual step of criticizing another law enforcement officer in a public statement that called for Sheriff Kevin Joyce to change his policy and accept more arrests. It’s rare for disagreements between police departments to emerge publicly, but the circumstances at the jail have continued to deteriorate.

“This is beyond frustrating,” Gorham said in a statement Thursday evening. “Something has to be done soon as this policy is putting our officers and our community at risk. We were fortunate there were no serious injuries.”

For more than a month, the jail’s intake department has been closed except for people charged with felonies against people or domestic violence charges, or for people with previously issued warrants of arrest. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who is in charge of the jail, declined an interview request but offered a written statement in response to questions, but gave no timeline for when the jail may reopen to full service.

Joyce said he is working with other jails to see if he can pool resources, but that requires negotiation with various labor unions. In the meantime, Joyce said he will not reopen the facility until he feels it’s safe to do so.

“Having intake partially closed down is not what we want, professionally and personally,” Joyce wrote. “But for now, I must protect the existing correction staff that we have running the jail.”


Portland police charged Steven Gruerman, 44, of Appleton with felony OUI Wednesday after an officer stopped him on Riverside Street for driving without a license plate. Police said Gruerman did not have a license and was intoxicated, and while he was at the police station for a breath test, Gruerman started threatening officers when he realized they had towed his car and he would not be allowed to drive home. But police say the jail would not take him, so they released him from the station.

Shortly after his release, police say Gruerman made a threatening call to 911 dispatchers, then went to the Hampton Inn on Fore Street. Hotel staff locked themselves in a room out of fear, and when police showed up, Gruerman threw a cup of coffee and punched a hole in the wall. The jail accepted him after he allegedly assaulted police during that second arrest.


Since early September, Joyce has tightly restricted who may be booked at the jail due to an ongoing staffing crisis. The jail is running with half its staff, and closing the intake department frees up corrections officers to patrol the housing units or perform other tasks inside the facility.

Sheriff Kevin Joyce outside of the Cumberland County Jail in February. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“My officers were forced to remove the handcuffs from a suspect that was actively threatening them and release him from custody because the crimes he committed did not meet the jail’s acceptance policies,” Gorham said in the statement Thursday. “A short time after his release he terrorized staff at a nearby hotel and assaulted several officers.”

Joyce said that arresting and jailing Gruerman may not have made a difference.


“Had the individual in question been arrested and was able to bail himself out, the incident still could have occurred,” Joyce wrote. “Not everyone who is arrested and taken to jail stays in jail overnight when they can make bail. It is true that removing a person from their environment MAY prevent further issues, but there are no guarantees.”

The staffing issues at the jail have been building for years, as more workers retired or found other jobs and were not replaced. The COVID-19 pandemic brought periodic restrictions on arrests, but for much of 2020 and part of 2021, arrests declined, easing the strain on the jail. That’s no longer the case, said Portland Police Major Robert Martin.

“We’re seeing violent crime every day,” Martin said. “You can have someone with a Class A trafficking, with possession of a firearm, with a kilo of fentanyl, and you can’t bring them to the jail.”

Martin said in the last few weeks, Portland police charged a person from out of state with Class A drug trafficking, a felony, but because of the jail closure, officers wrote the person a summons.

“We gave them a ticket and let them go. We may never see them again,” Martin said. “Those kinds of things are happening every day.”



Gruerman’s case is the latest episode of the jail’s closure leading to an escalation. Martin remembered one case during the pandemic when a man was issued a summons for disorderly conduct in Deering Oaks park but could not be arrested. A few minutes later, he started a fight in a different area of the park and stabbed a person.

The victim still had the knife protruding from their back when officers arrived to arrest the alleged assailant, and the victim was lucky to survive, Martin said.

In another case, a patron was ejected from The Drink Exchange on Wharf Street and began to scuffle with a security guard. When he attempted to return to start another fight, police charged the man with misdemeanors and issued a summons to appear in court with the instruction not to return to the bar.

The man returned to the Drink Exchange anyway, and started another fight in which he was shot and wounded. He survived.

So far, the jail has been mostly unsuccessful in drawing in enough workers to replenish the ranks, despite wage increases, sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses for current employees. Correction staff undergo a five-week training course at the Criminal Justice Academy and must pass a polygraph examination and fitness test, as well as a background check. Starting pay is around $23 to $24 per hour.

To keep the jail open day to day, officers have been forced to work up to three overtime shifts each week, a deal negotiated with the correction officer’s union. Joyce said an employee who began work on Monday quit Friday when he learned overtime would be required.

“While the current situation is not ideal and providing public safety is a challenge for all of us, we are ALL doing the best we can to protect everyone,” Joyce said. “As for how long the diversion can go on, we are monitoring the issue day by day, week by week in hopes that we can reopen as soon as possible.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.