ELLSWORTH — Sheriff Scott Kane withdrew his request to purchase protective riot gear for his officers prior to a heated debate during Tuesday’s Hancock County Commissioners meeting.
During an interview last week, Kane said the proposed “riot gear” items are helmets with face shields, batons and protective gloves.
“That’s what I was going to ask for. It’s not something that’s used to be aggressive towards the public.”
Kane said there may be times when protests “go south,” when residents are protesting peacefully but there are “antagonizers.”
“More than likely you’ll never see it,” he said. “It’s to protect my officers and the people.”
The meeting got off to a rocky start.
The commissioners took comments from a few handfuls of the 66 citizens who tuned in for the meeting, which was held via the videoconferencing software Zoom. It was one of the largest groups of citizens ever to attend one the board’s regular monthly meetings. Public concerns have been fueled, at least in part, by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A police officer has been charged with second degree murder in Floyd’s death.
The format of the meeting was a challenge. The commissioners did not have an orderly way to take public comments on Zoom and ensure that everyone who wanted to speak got a chance.
Chairman Bill Clark was concerned about the time that the meeting would take if everyone received three minutes to speak—the board already had a full agenda in addition to the sheriff’s request for additional gear as well as to hire a new deputy to fulfill a town contract.
“Are we prepared to sit here this morning and listen to comments for three hours on one topic?” asked Clark.
“Yes,” Commissioner Antonio Blasi replied.
Commissioner John Wombacher had reservations.
“I just don’t know if it’s [Zoom] a great forum for public comments and trying to manage it,” Wombacher said. “I was hoping we’d come up with a solution—it’s hard to do right now with the virus—to figure out when to hold a public hearing. There isn’t a great solution to it to be honest. I think it’s better for it to be a dedicated meeting. As long as we have it soon and not delay it too long.”
“I’m willing to support a separate meeting,” said Kane. “I think my request if I had been asked prior to emails going out about this, I could have put a lot of this to bed. I didn’t get the courtesy of that call.”
Resident Lawson Wulsin said he would like to see the commissioners shift funding from the police towards existing community service agencies with a specific target of “supporting black and indigenous people of color in our community.”
Leslie Ross, Hancock County case coordinator for the Restorative Justice Project, also spoke.
“The sheer number of people here is an indication the people would like a voice,” Ross said.
Ross suggested that the county create a “crisis intervention policy manual with a chapter on crowd management.”
That led to the idea of forming a committee with both members of the public and government officials. Ross said the group should “further explore policing needs in Hancock County.”
Rachel Singh of Franklin said, “like other people have said, I’ve been quite shaken…with the deaths of citizens at the hands of police as well as the way the protests have happened.”
“We are not immune to those problems in Hancock County,” Singh said. “One of the greatest threats to our democracy is apathy. Like many other people, I was concerned and thinking hard about how I can support our law enforcement agencies to protect everyone in our community.”
Singh said she was disappointed that everyone wasn’t allowed to comment at the beginning of the meeting. “I appreciate the sheriff’s openness.”
Another woman told Kane she was worried about the effects of using tear gas on nearby populations.
Kane said he never asked for tear gas nor would he.
As far as the “riot gear” items that were requested—the helmets with face shields, batons and gloves—there is no plan at this point to put that request on a future meeting agenda, according to the sheriff.