CUMBERLAND — A reflective smile crossed John Dalbec’s face June 1 as the police officer thumbed through a handful of relics from “back in the day” – moments captured from nearly 30 years on the job.
There was a photo with McGruff the Crime Dog, a group shot from a trip to the FBI’s Boston headquarters, works of art given to him by Greely High School students. Even a yellowed clipping from The Forecaster’s issue of May 18, 2000, highlighting his then-fledgling role as the first school resource officer in School Administrative District 51.
Particularly special was a card from a former student, who took the day off to hand it to Dalbec when he heard the officer was leaving.
“He’s 33 years old,” Dalbec said. “He walked in, and gave me this card, and said ‘thank you.’ So this is really an emotional kind of thing, and it’s wonderful.”
The walls of his office are now bare, the memorabilia packed away in advance of his last day with the Cumberland Police Department on June 21. Officer Kirk Mazuzan will replace Dalbec as SRO, and Dalbec will start with another police department in Maine, where he plans to spearhead the SRO program.
Dalbec had just turned 21 when he started in Cumberland as a patrol officer on Nov. 7, 1988. He graduated from Cheverus High School in Portland three years before, and spent two years at what is now Southern Maine Community College before stints with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, and the Old Orchard Beach and Falmouth police departments.
Dalbec started working with School Administrative District 51 students in 1992, when he began coaching basketball.
“No basketball background, other than I got cut from my middle school team back in Massachusetts,” he recalled with a grin.
Dalbec, who is married and has two daughters, has also coached girls’ lacrosse, girls’ ice hockey, baseball and softball. He was quick to note that his love of sports in no way diminishes his appreciation of the arts.
“I’ve got a painting of my house from a student here, that I bought from her many years ago, and it’s the showpiece of my collection,” he said. “The kids that do the arts and the music are so talented.”
Dalbec’s work with the D.A.R.E. program ran from 1993-2001, and since 1999 he’s been Greely’s SRO.
The SRO position combined his work in the D.A.R.E. program and coaching, he said, “to try to give kids an opportunity not through just athletics, but through academics and mentoring, and putting those models together.”
During his 19 years in schools he has the rise in gun-related violence, along with a related focus on student mental health. Dalbec has accordingly become more of a mental health worker, and said he has “spent more time life-coaching and dealing with social media.”
“One of the things is knowing your customer,” Dalbec said. “When you’re a trained police officer, you have the ability to look deeper … and know what’s going on. We identify the customer; we try to help them and coach them along” through their crises.
“Whatever their needs are, we can see those and try to provide a safe, caring environment for them to flourish in,” he added. “It makes a big difference when people actually understand where the problem is, and how to fix it.”
His office has been a sanctuary for students, who could use a friend or just want to hang out.
“They turn here. And they come here a lot, and it’s good that they come,” Dalbec said, adding that social service providers are also key assets with whom he works.
“It’s the most important thing you can do as a policeman, being present in people’s lives,” he said. “And being pointed. And being the most important person in the room when there’s a crisis.”
“Everybody has their role, and sometimes I feel like a mediator in some aspects, to just bring people together, and see how we can make it work,” Dalbec added.
In a follow-up email, he summarized it this way: “At the end of the day it’s about small-town relationships and connecting kids, family and community.”
Cumberland Police Chief Chip Rumsey said Monday that there are “many families sending their children to our school system now who had John as their SRO when they were students. This provides them with a tremendous sense of comfort and fills John with a tremendous sense of pride.
“The officers who work with John have learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot, about how the human connection and knowledge of the community can help to solve problems,” Rumsey added. “Multiple times in the past two years, there have been incidents where John has arrived on scene and because of the familiarity and comfort level that people have with him, rapport and communication are instantly established. This typically leads to positive outcomes.”
Rumsey said last week that Dalbec’s next department has asked him not to publicize the details of that position, including its location, until the middle of this month, “so they can work through the process on their end.”
Dalbec said the department, which approached him about establishing an SRO program there, is in central Maine. He will be sworn in July 10.
“I’m looking forward to going there; it’s a great new challenge,” he said. “It will be a great opportunity for me to use my skills.”
Still, it’s a bittersweet move for the 51-year-old resident of Old Orchard Beach.
Leaving this area is “a tough one to even talk about and think about, because I never thought I would ever leave,” Dalbec said. “It’s like that guy that holds (onto) the old Volkswagen; he says, ‘I’m not gonna go anywhere!’
“But then he puts it on the lawn for $2,500” Dalbec added, with a chuckle. “And he gets 13.”
John Dalbec, a Cumberland police officer, concludes 19 years as a school resource officer in School Administrative District 51 this month.
Officer John Dalbec holds a 2000 story about him in The Forecaster, a year after he became the first school resource officer in School Administrative District 51.