Thu, Oct 02, 2014 ●
BathHarpswellTopshamBrunswickCumberlandNorth YarmouthFalmouthFreeportPortlandCape ElizabethScarboroughSouth PortlandChebeague IslandYarmouth

Freeport police claim shortcomings threaten public safety

News

Freeport police claim shortcomings threaten public safety

FREEPORT — A nine-page letter signed by members of the Police Department was sent to the police chief, the town manager and the Town Council last week listing concerns about public safety, departmental staffing, budgetary limitations and dispatch consolidation.

The open letter outlines the needs of Freeport's officers and dispatchers, Officer Joe Pelletier said, and was written because problems within the department are not being addressed.

"We have 12 officers for a town that is growing, that gets a lot of visitors, and a lot of new business," he said. "Now there are two officers out with injuries and one at the (Police) Academy, and we are often understaffed."

The letter says the department has been repeatedly denied funding for staff increases, police vehicles, firearms and the opportunity for training.

In addition, the letter states that the department has heard that "as early as July 1, the town of Freeport will shift dispatch responsibilities from a locally controlled and operated dispatch center to a 'regional' dispatch center in Windham."

Pelletier said while it is important for residents to understand how important a locally controlled dispatch center is, it is not the main focus of the letter. The letter, he said, is meant to illustrate how public safety can be compromised due to lack of staff, training and upgrades to equipment.

"We want to make it understood that this is not solely a dispatch issue and
has nothing to do with contract negotiations," he said. "It is meant to
inform the citizens of Freeport about public safety and to spark
discussions with councilors."

Town Manager Dale Olmstead said the timing of the letter, a few weeks before the town and police union are to begin contract negotiations, is either a coincidence, or a well-planned attempt to gain a bargaining advantage.

He said he does not know whether the letter is a union or non-union action.

"If it is a non-union action, then there has been a clear violation of
the chain of command," he said. "If there are complaints in a
department, you start with the immediate supervisor and go up the
chain of command."

Detective Gino Bianchini, Freeport's police union president, said the letter has nothing to do with the organization.

"It
was signed by non-union members and has nothing to do with our
upcoming negotiations," he said. "If it was from the union, it would have been
written on union letterhead."

The letter was signed by 15 of the department's 22 employees: two sergeants, seven officers, the detective, four dispatchers and the shellfish warden. Pelletier said Lt. Susan Nourse was "not invited" to sign the letter because she is an administrator and second in command of the department.

"This letter may be what it takes to educate the council and the citizens of Freeport," Pelletier said. "I don't want a tragedy to wake people up to the necessity of more staffing. Someone, an officer or a citizen, could get hurt."

Olmstead said he does not think the letter was accurate, and it could mislead the public. 

"The patrol has every right to provide the public with
information, but they have a responsibility to make sure that
information is factual and thoughtful," he said. "They failed on the
second test."

He said there are discrepancies in the letter including claims that there have been decisions made about dispatch consolidation. According to Olmstead, the council has not discussed the consolidation of dispatch
services since last May, when there were public meetings that included residents, councilors,  police officers and members of dispatch. He said councilors will again assess the benefit of joining the county dispatch in Windham if it makes sense financially and does not affect the service in town.

He also said the claim that the department has not grown in 25 years is false. He said the patrol has increased 58 percent since 1984.

Pelletier said the letter is not misleading. He said there are 12 sworn offices now, and there were 11 in 1987. He said while they did gain one officer, three others were promoted to seargent, school resource officer and detective, leaving six patrol officers to maintain the safety of the town.

The letter was released at a time when Freeport, like many other towns in the area, facing a Town Council goal to not raise taxes in fiscal year 2010. Olmstead has asked town departments to make concessions and sacrifices.

"With the financial problems that are being felt worldwide, there is no reason taxpayers should have to face an increase," he said. In order to help meet the goal, he said both the library and public works departments have made decisions to help maintain the budget.

"Police and dispatch in other towns – Windham, Westbrook, South
Portland, Yarmouth – have all made consessions on heath or salaries," he
said. "(Freeport's police are) taking a different approach."

Olmstead acknowledged that as a result of officers being out due to illnesses, other patrolmen have had to pick up
their shifts.

"The remaining officers have had to pick up a tremendous amount of burden, and their overtime has been substantial," he said.

Pelletier said he hopes bringing to light some of the problems within the department will educate the community on the need for more officers, the need for more training and the need for the support from the council, Olmstead and Police Chief Gerald Schofield.

"We sent this letter to the Town Council and town manager because it should not be our responsibility to bear this burden alone," the letter said. "We do this because we see no change in sight."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.