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Public Safety Subcommittee 6/14 Meeting Summary

Image from the Sanford Fire Department's recruitment video.

The City Council’s Public Safety Subcommittee met with City staff June 14, 2022 via Zoom. Councilor Ayn Hanselmann sat in for Mayor Anne-Marie Mastraccio, joining Councilors Becky Brink and Jonathan Martell.

Covid Update

Community Development Director Ian Houseal presented an update on Covid-19 statistics for the state and county. The number of hospitalized patients in the state with Covid peaked in mid-January of this year, but another spike in April showed over 200 hospital patients testing positive at that time. The community level in York County is rated green/low as of last week’s data. Mr. Houseal said he is particularly concerned about the number of Sanford residents who have not had even one shot of the vaccine, including about 50% of our school age children, as they can spread the virus to more vulnerable people even if they don’t get sick themselves.

Opioid Settlement

City Manager Steven Buck said the state of Maine is entering into an agreement governing how funds from the opioid settlement will be distributed. Sanford is one of 39 “direct share subdivisions” in the state which will split 30% of the settlement money. Another 20% will go to the state Attorney General’s office and the remaining 50% will go into a Maine Recovery Fund to be allocated by the Recovery Council, of which Sanford’s Deputy Police Chief Eric Small is a member. The effective date of the agreement is July 1, but Mr. Buck expects to get actual numbers by mid-July. He hopes that the settlement money can be used for the Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, freeing up the American Rescue Plan Act funds that were budgeted for it to be repurposed to other needs. The settlement agreement is for 18 years, and Sanford will get two disbursements this year, and another each of the following 17 years. This settlement is from one lawsuit, but there are multiple other lawsuits pending against the industry which may result in more settlements.

Fire Department Update

Staffing: Chief Steve Benotti said the SFD is fully staffed on paper, but they have a couple of long-term injury leaves, so they are still shorthanded. He anticipates a couple of openings this summer, including one firefighter who will no longer be qualified to work if the state Attorney General issues a final ruling mandating Covid-19 vaccination for emergency medical personnel. Beginning in the fall, EMS providers will also have to be vaccinated against the flu. The Department is accepting applications but they are slow in coming. A few applications have been received for the new Assistant Chief position, from as far away as California. Two firefighters are working toward their paramedic certification.

Activity: The Department is on a record-setting pace for call activity, with 373 calls in the past 30 days. 68% were medical and 32% fire-related.

Equipment: A new fire engine was slated to be delivered in July, but has been pushed off until August due to manufacturing delays. Chief Benotti said Sanford residents may see a strange ambulance around town in the weeks to come. One of our ambulances will be going in for service and we will have a loaner to use during that period.

Overtime: The Department hit a record for overtime spending this year. He looks forward to bringing that down next year with full staffing.

Peer Support: Councilor Hanselmann asked if counseling is available for Fire Department employees who have to deal with accident scenes and other traumatic situations. Chief Benotti said the Fire Department has trained peer support counselors to help their colleagues through some of the difficult situations. They have given assistance to other Fire Departments as well, including Berwick. He hopes to expand the number of certified peer counselors by hosting a class this fall.

Wrecker Service

Lt. Tim DeHaven of the Sanford Police Department presented proposed updates to the agreement with wrecker companies who are called to tow disabled vehicles following an accident. The agreement has not been updated in at least fifteen years. One major concern for the towing companies is in dealing with abandoned campers or boats. Their costs far exceed what they get paid, especially if the vehicle needs to be destroyed. They are proposing to tow these vehicles to the DPW garage and let the City deal with them instead. Lt. DeHaven said the City needs to come up with a plan to avoid that scenario.

The other major concern is using the vehicle owner’s AAA to tow the vehicle. The wreckers do not get paid unless they are dispatched by the AAA dispatcher, but that usually takes longer than the City is willing to wait. So the vehicle owner will have to pay for the tow and other charges, then try to get reimbursed by AAA.

The amounts the City pays the wreckers is also being increased substantially. For example, the day towing rate will increase from $75 to $150, and the night towing rate from $95 to $200. The Subcommittee members agreed this was reasonable given the length of time since the fee schedule was last updated. The updates to the agreement will be forwarded to the full City Council for approval.

Police Department Update

Body Cameras: Chief Craig Andersen presented a proposal to outfit all Sanford officers with body cameras. (The cruisers already have cameras.) He told the Subcommittee members that body cameras have become the standard for progressive law enforcement agencies and contribute to building public trust as well as protecting officers’ safety and the City from liability. He recommends the Axon Body 3 cameras, which interface with the Axon Tasers the Department already uses. The cameras store data in a secure cloud system which can be easily downloaded for court appearances, internal review and training. The video would only be available to the public with a court order.

Once implemented, the cameras will record nearly every contact with the public. Officers would record each call for service, a traffic stop or other official business. The cameras also automatically activate whenever an officer draws their firearm or Taser. If an officer is suddenly confronted with a deadly force threat, they can’t be expected to draw a weapon and also push the start button on their camera, so having this auto-start device is key to capturing the most critical of incidents.

The total cost is $161,006 for the first five years of the program. The funds would come out of the current year’s Capital Improvements Plan, and budgeted into future CIPs, although Chief Andersen said there is grant funding available for body cameras which the Department will pursue. “We all recognize we are going to go to this at some point,” he said, adding, “Every year we delay costs more.” The Subcommittee agreed to move the proposal forward to the full Council next week.

Response to Critical Incidents: In response to recent events in the news, Chief Andersen addressed the Department’s ability to respond to critical incidents such as active shooters. He said Sanford officers are extremely dedicated and well-trained, and have all the equipment they need out in the field with them. He said they have excellent leadership and a commitment to public safety which means there will not be any hesitation to act if a critical event occurs. They have a great relationship with the Fire Department and have trained with them to ensure that EMS providers would be able to provide medical treatment even if an area was not completely secured.

Traffic Enforcement: Chief Andersen also spoke about the dedicated traffic officer that he said will be implemented beginning the last week of June or first week of July. He anticipates there will be many citations written as the Department is finally able to dedicate a full-time position to enforcing speed limits and traffic laws. “This is going to bring some hurt in the wallets of those people who can’t slow down or who can’t follow the rules of the road,” he said. The ticket for speeding 10 mph over the limit is $129, and $170 for speeding 15 mph over. “This could destroy a person’s monthly budget. When you fail to pay a citation or address it in court, the State will suspend your driver’s license, then you have a reinstatement fee on top of the fine (not to mention the impact on car insurance), and the snowball effect becomes bigger. Please, help us keep the roads safer, and help yourself avoid traffic citations, by just slowing down, obey the driving rules and have some patience with other motorists when traveling.”

Mental Health Unit: DC Small introduced the newest member of the Department’s Mental Health Unit, Mike Gordon. Officer Gordon is a veteran of the Department who has served as a School Resource Officer as well as Training Officer. He will work with Detective Colleen Adams and OPTIONS clinician Lacey Bailey to provide aid and resources for those experiencing homelessness, substance use disorder (SUD), and mental health crises. The addition of a second officer to the MHU was made possible by a federal grant. (See this story for more details.)

DC Small announced that the Department will also be getting the services of a full-time volunteer for one year, from the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. The volunteer will do an evaluation of the MHU, look at the data and see how it can be used more effectively. They will pursue additional grant opportunities as well.

Firearms and Ammunition: Chief Andersen said that the SPD has accepted unwanted firearms and ammunition from the public at the police station for many years, although the program is not well known. Once the new website is up and running, it will be better advertised.

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