The three levels of law enforcement that most regularly serve our communities – local, county and state – are each their own operation. They have different cultures and funding sources, and they answer to different bosses.

The people they serve and protect, however, have only one concern: that someone is there when they need them.

A Maine State Police cruiser in 2021. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

As police departments at all levels struggle to fill their rosters, that’s becoming much less of a certainty in the rural areas of Maine. Law enforcement must put aside their differences and work together to make sure no one is left without the security of police coverage.

That’s not what happened recently in Washington County. According to a report from the Maine Monitor, the Maine State Police ended patrols in Washington County on July 9, only telling county officials of their decision in late May.

As a result, the county is scrambling to fill the void, as the sheriff’s department will now patrol most of the county’s 3,258 square miles by itself. Officials approved emergency funds to hire a new deputy and may have to hire as many as three additional officers in the next budget. In the meantime, coverage will be scant.

It’s not clear where those new officers will come from. Police departments throughout Maine are finding it difficult to hire new officers, and that difficulty is even more pronounced in rural areas. In the Washington County city of Calais, for example, its police department has three vacancies – half the full-time force – that it can’t fill.


Even the state police, with higher pay and prestige, can’t fill roster spots, with more than 50 vacancies and only 331 officers, with a high number of retirements coming soon. Amazingly, there hasn’t been an increase in the number of state patrol troopers since 1977, even though emergency calls statewide have increased steadily over the decades.

More than any other factor, that’s why the state police are pulling out of rural patrols, having pulled back from their regular presence in Somerset, Kennebec, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, too, in recent years. They just don’t have the manpower.

Instead, state police leaders say they are focusing on interstate patrols and ramping up their specialty teams, such as tactical units, crisis negotiation and underwater recovery.

Those are valuable assets. But we can’t expect local and county police to step up and fill the patrol shifts state police are leaving behind. They were already having trouble hiring a full complement of police officers before they had to pick up all the calls that were previously handled by state troopers. How will they find the extra officers who are needed now?

And even if they do, it’ll be an extra burden on property taxes, which many Mainers already struggle to pay. As Kennebec County Patrol Lt. Chris Read said in a memo to the county administrator last year, cutting rural patrols by state police is another “unfunded mandate” on our counties and municipalities.

There’s a better way to coordinate police coverage than having every level react individually to its own challenges and shortcomings. The state police should work more closely with local and county counterparts to make sure communities have what they need – or at the very least, know what they can expect, now and into the future.

If that’s not happening, then the Mills administration should step in and take a more active role to make sure no one’s being left in an unsafe position.

When someone in Maine calls the police, it doesn’t really matter which color car shows up – just that one gets there in time.

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