ELLSWORTH — Emergency calls to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office in 2020 were up 1,300 over those in 2019.
“This year was an unusual year,” said Chief Deputy Patrick Kane in a conversation with the Islander this week regarding the numbers from last year. “It’s really kind of across the board, in every area, calls for service are up.”
Describing 2020 as an unusual year is an understatement. Although the information is still being analyzed, it is safe to say the call increase can be attributed to a year influenced largely by the effects of a pandemic.
When the world shut down last March, many people were stuck at home, which included children who were out of school and adults who were not working. As a result, domestic violence calls increased, calls regarding family disputes were higher and reports of fraud, especially phone calls from scam artists, were up.
An increase in domestic violence calls was the case across the nation during the pandemic. What surprised Kane, and a few other veterans of the county force, was how extreme they were in Hancock County.
“The level of violence certainly was eye opening for all of us,” he said. In 2020, domestic altercations led to life-threatening situations more often than in previous years. “The severity of them really stood out. This year was clearly different. I’m hoping it’s an anomaly.”
So far in 2021, the numbers are pretty comparable to those at this time last year.
“Unfortunately, we’re still on pace,” said Kane, noting the strain on resources at the sheriff’s office. “We send a minimum of two officers to any domestic violence situation… and sometimes I only have two officers on.”
These situations don’t always end in an arrest.
“A lot of those we wind up mediating,” said Kane, noting that separating the people tends to be a common solution. “Oftentimes we make sure they are safe in the short term.”
An increase in population due to people flocking to Hancock County from larger metropolitan areas is also contributing to the higher numbers, according to Kane.
“We’ve clearly noticed more people around,” he said. “Some came earlier, some stayed later and some never left.”
People new to an area may be more likely to call the police when unfamiliar situations arise. But, there also seems to be a general lack of civility, according to Kane.
“It seems like people have lost the ability to talk to one another, to mediate their differences,” he said, noting a higher incidence of trespassing calls. “Those numbers are up about 75 cases over the year before. It’s a pretty substantial increase, nearly double.”
Kane explained that trespassing calls can often be because of a property boundary dispute. Calls for a ‘suspicious person’ were up, with 60 more than in 2019. These can also be property related. An example Kane offered was that of a local clammer digging in a flat they’ve worked for years but that had new ownership. The new property owner might not be aware of the previous owner’s agreement with the clammer or they may want to keep their property private.
On the other hand, calls to check on someone’s well–being were up by 60 calls from the previous year. Those can come from a concerned neighbor or from a family member who lives out of state.
“We check on people to make sure they’re OK,” said Kane.
While Maine saw the highest number of overdose deaths in 2020, numbers in Hancock County were not significantly higher than any other year.
“We didn’t notice a tremendous uptick in deaths,” said Kane, adding that there were incidents where officers responding to a situation using naloxone, also called Narcan, were able to revive people. “That’s a tremendous society problem that we’re all trying to deal with.”
In addition to the pandemic, 2020 also was a year of social unrest, with protests taking place around the country in response to the death of George Floyd. According to an FBI report released last November, hate crimes in the United States hit an all–time high in 2019. Numbers for 2020 are still being recorded, but there was not a significant number of hate crimes reported in Hancock County last year, according to Kane.
“We do have them from time to time, that’s kind of a moving target,” he said, explaining that guidelines for what qualifies as a hate crime are set by federal agencies. “In 2020, they were pretty limited, surprisingly.”
In response to protests focused on police violence, many called for defunding police departments or dispersing law enforcement funds to social services that, ultimately, can support the work of law enforcement agencies. According to Kane, use of social services is not always possible when responding to emergency calls.
“We don’t have any social workers we can reach out to,” he said. “We work closely with mental health. We work with domestic violence (organizations). Oftentimes, unfortunately, we are the social workers.”
An increase of 1,300 calls from one year to the next was a cause for concern, Kane said. Each year, the sheriff’s office reviews the number of calls from the previous year in order to assess how services are offered. Whether it was an unusual year or a change that will continue, the department has two areas of focus with the information, according to Kane. Those are, is it necessary to change how they are addressing things, and how is the department’s manpower – are they being effective or burning people out?
As deputy chief, Kane typically is working behind a desk. When things get busy, he is working in the field along with his officers. “That was the case (last) year.”