BAR HARBOR — Officers from the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police Departments have been working under a pilot project in which officers from each department may be patrolling in either or both towns. Police Chief Jim Willis updated the Town Council about the process on Tuesday.
Willis spoke during the public comment period to explain how it evolved and how it came from existing chief-sharing and mutual aid agreements between the towns. Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and other members of the League of Towns each have stated goals of increased police cooperation.
This summer, a Bar Harbor officer left the department to take a position elsewhere, he said. “We didn’t have anybody ready to fill it immediately because BHPD doesn’t use part-time or reserve officers. And because of the time of year, we were operating at full capacity. All of those shifts were first offered to BHPD staff as overtime.”
He asked Mount Desert officers to help cover the remaining unfilled shifts. “In the end, it was less expensive to use MDPD, but that really wasn’t the driving force. The driving force was we had work to be done and not enough people to do it,” he said.
The departments are now back to full staff, he said. But the situation sparked conversations with supervisors and staff in both agencies about working more closely together.
“So this fall, we developed a patrol zone pilot project. We divided the two towns into three geographic areas that are not defined by town line borders. We’ve been able to stretch our supervisors over the top of the whole thing, giving both departments much more present supervision. We chose to do a pilot project to run for several weeks while the current police chief-sharing agreement is in place.”
He said they hoped collecting feedback about the pilot project from staff and the two communities would help as the next chief-sharing agreement is being drawn up.
“Early indications are that it’s working well,” he said. “I think our response times are a little better.”
A state statute defines a basic level of mutual aid assistance between law enforcement agencies, but the current agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert is much broader, Willis told the Islander.
“The mutual aid agreement really talks about sharing service and telling us we want you to patrol in one another’s town. In other towns, we provide assistance without an agreement so that takes us over to the state statute that governs mutual aid, and it’s much more restrictive,” he said.
All the officers in both departments received commissions as deputy sheriffs through the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office this year, allowing them to operate outside their boundaries, but Willis said that did not negate the need for mutual aid agreements.
“When we did the agreement this time, I put two layers of authority over it – broader authority to cooperate as well as the deputy’s commissions,” Willis said.
“It’s a unique agreement because it’s so free-flowing, and the communities are so willing to work together. We believe we’re working within the vision and established goals from council and from the Mount Desert selectmen. I hope we’re being responsive to what they want, because in the end, that’s what this should be.”