Peaks Island residents criticize police crackdown
PORTLAND — Increased enforcement of seat belt and vehicle registration laws on Peaks Island is leaving some island residents critical of the Police Department.
In an e-mail to police Sgt. Gary Hutcheson on April 30, Peaks Island Council Chairman Michael Richards said many islanders are upset with the department's "inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement of the laws."
The upset was caused when traffic police visiting the island in April issued tickets for unregistered vehicles and seat-belt violations. The officers were on the island to try out an amphibious vehicle and had about an hour to wait for the ferry, so Hutcheson instructed them to look for vehicles in violation of registration laws.
Four people were ticketed for having unregistered vehicles and not wearing seat belts.
According Richards' e-mail and Peaks Island Council Public Safety Committee Chairman Mike Langella, island residents are not accustomed to wearing seat belts because the speed limit on the island is 20 miles per hour.
Langella said police should have met with the island council prior to coming to the island to enforce such laws so they could develop a set of expectations.
Richards in his e-mail said that if the police are "suddenly" going to enforce seat-belt laws, they should first give warnings rather than tickets.
"We recognize that this may be different from the way the PPD enforces the law in the city, but we also recognize that our small island is very different than the state's biggest city, and that this is the kind of 'community policing' Islanders prefer," Richards said.
Hutcheson, who is in charge of island police as well as the traffic division, said he's sworn to enforce the law and does not have to first run enforcement decisions past the council. The seat belt law, he said, is a state law. He said abandoned vehicles are a big issue on the island, and officers were instructed to ticket vehicles unregistered for more than 150 days that were in city ways.
"Abandoning a vehicle on an island in Maine is a criminal offense," Hutcheson said.
But the police do not intend to prosecute anyone. They just want the cars moved. There is no tow lot on Peaks, so cars have to be taken to the mainland on the ferry. Langella said establishment of a tow lot on the island is an issue worth examining.
As for the islander's outcry over sudden enforcement, Hutcheson said he is not satisfied with the level of enforcement on Peaks and has instructed officers to be proactive.
"We issued nine tickets in two days out there," Hutcheson said. "We towed one car."
He said he believes some of the discontent has nothing to do with law enforcement, but with a group of islanders who are upset that Peaks did not win a secession bid two years ago and are set on criticizing everything the city does.
"As far as warnings, Peaks has been treated basically with kid gloves and continues to be allowed leeway where nowhere else in the city is it allowed," Hutcheson said. An example, he said, was posting vehicles and allowing owners 20 days to deal with the vehicles before they are towed. On the mainland, he said, there is no warning – vehicles are simply towed.
"My intention is to show up on Peaks at least once a week and make sure they are getting enforcement," he said.
While some islanders may be upset about the upswing in enforcement, Langella said police presence on the island is lacking during the day, when in the event that an island officer calls in sick, only one officer is assigned to Peaks rather than two. Langella said that the council believes having just one officer on the island is dangerous, in part because police officers must also respond to medical emergencies. Last fall an officer working the afternoon shift alone responded to a medical emergency and ended up having to seek help to drive the ambulance.
"We expect to receive the same coverage as everyone else in the city," Langella said.
Since the incident, at the suggestion of Island Councilor Bob Hurley, a policy has been put in place so that if an officer is working the shift alone, he sends a page to other city workers on the island to check for their availability. Public service employees and off-duty firefighters on the island are trained EMTs.
The proposed fiscal 2010 budget, which takes effect July 1, eliminates overtime funding between Labor Day and Memorial Day for officers to fill day shift absences on the island. Although the police department has been operating under the policy of not filling the absent officer slot and instead paging other island city employees for medical emergency situations, the overtime cut would make that policy official.
Langella said he and other members of the island council will meet with Hutcheson Friday to discuss expectations for services police provide on the island. He said the meeting is one in a series he plans to have with the police sergeant, and that the meeting was scheduled before the ticketing issue arose.
"We're making an effort to work closely with police," Langella said. "Our goal is to improve that relationship."