Oxford County Sheriff scraps coverage agreement with state police

by Peter L McGuire, Staff Writer Sun Journal Nov. 21, 2013

PARIS — The Oxford County Sheriff's Office is abandoning its longtime call-sharing agreement with Maine State Police and taking primary responsibility for law enforcement response in the county. 

According to Sheriff Wayne Gallant, the agreement established a decade ago "doesn't seem to work well" and leaves gaps in coverage.

Zone coverage map
Law-enforcement coverage zones in Oxford County.

Under the previous agreement, the county was split into three coverage zones: south, north and central. Sheriff's deputies and troopers from Maine State Police Troop B barracks in Gray alternated responsibility for primary zone coverage on a weekly rotation. 

Troop B is responsible for covering Oxford, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties.

Residents regularly contact the Sheriff's Office to complain that officers either did not respond to a call or were hours late, Gallant told commissioners. He admitted sheriff's deputies were also responsible for coverage shortfalls.

County residents are also discouraged when they call the county's dispatch center in South Paris for police service and are transferred to the state police barracks in Gray because a trooper has responsibility for the zone, he said.

With the new arrangement, the Sheriff's Office will take over primary coverage for the entire county. Calls for police service and 911 calls to the Oxford County Regional Communications Center in South Paris will be automatically directed to deputies. If residents want to have a trooper respond, they will still be able to call the state police in Gray directly, he added.

"We get most of the calls already," Gallant said.

State troopers will provide backup for deputies, but if state police are called to provide service, the request will be screened by a supervising officer before a trooper is dispatched.  

Gallant said he is confident the county would have enough day-to-day manpower to provide countywide coverage.

With the new arrangement, one deputy will patrol each zone, with a sergeant supervising and an additional deputy in Bethel, which contracts with the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement. 

During the day, Gallant said, those five officers will be backed up by two uniformed deputies in the civil division as well as three detectives stationed at the Sheriff's Office in South Paris. 

Oxford County is pursuing mutual aid agreements with the county's seven municipal police departments and sheriffs in neighboring Franklin, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties. Gallant told commissioners that a more flexible arrangement with local law enforcement was preferable to the confining zone structure.

Taking over primary responsibility for the county may increase deputies' workload and the Sheriff's Office would not be able to guarantee 100 percent coverage, Gallant admitted.

The new system is not expected to increase the county's costs, he added. 

"We're still going to get the same amount of calls, but we're going to be answering more," he told commissioners. 

Keeping the majority of responses within the department will, however, provide more continuity in criminal investigations and emergency response, he insisted.

In a phone interview Tuesday, State Police Troop B Commander Walter Gryzb said Gallant's decision to abandon the agreement was "unexpected." 

The state police doesn't intend to reassign the nine troopers for Oxford County, but depending on call volumes in the next few months, focus may shift to highway safety and criminal investigations.

"We may be able to better focus our energies in those areas, depending on what the call volumes look like," Gryzb said.

In theory, a trooper is assigned to each zone for daily coverage, but occasionally there are only two on duty at a time, Gryzb said. Several troopers assigned to specialty units, such as the state's tactical team, can be pulled off their beat in a moment's notice to respond to an emergency on the other side of the state, leaving their zone uncovered. 

"We're the state police," Gryzb said. "We have a responsibility that extends beyond Oxford County. Sometimes it extends beyond Troop B's zone."

The Sheriff's Office intends to monitor call volumes in the next two months to determine how the new system functions.