By Erin Place
PARIS—There’s a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that the residents aren’t aware of that necessitate the use of free military equipment by the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, according to Chief Deputy Hart Daley.
The sheriff’s department has reaped the benefits of the federal Department of Defense Excess Property Program, or the 1033 Program, which provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement and emergency management agencies at no cost since the goods have already been paid for by federal tax dollars. So far, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department has received cold weather gear—including jackets, boots, thermal clothing, gloves and socks—first aid kits, tourniquets, flashlights, radios, cameras, GPS units, tents, backpacks, three cardiac monitors and defibrillator—with a typical price tag of $33,000 each—an enclosed trailer for storage and firearms training, and 30 electronic optic sights for rifles—normally costing $600 a piece—among other items.
“All of items that we get are researched and selected based on their enhancement of officer safety, the ability to protect officers themselves and the public,” Daley said in an interview with Advertiser Democrat on Monday, adding that this gear also enhances the department’s ability to conduct investigations.
But the sheriff’s department has its eyes on a larger prize, a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, which Daley said would be used for defensive purposes and was not designed for police aggression activity. The heavily armored tank-like vehicle costs upwards of $350,000, but the rub is the closest one is located in Colorado and would cost more than $10,000 to ship it to Oxford County.
“We’re not going to burden the taxpayers with something like that,” Daley said.
The chief deputy was quick to point out that people are caught up on military aspect of the MRAP vehicle, referencing the recent riots in Ferguson, Mo., which happened after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, and the National Guard and tanks rolled into the city. Daley said the goal of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department is not to militarize the local agency.
“We understand the clear difference between aggressive military action and protecting and serving the public that’s entrusted us. We don’t train the same as the military, we train as police officers in a civilian world because that’s what we are,” he said, adding the people deputies are protecting are their friends, family and neighbors. “The administration in this office understands that we would never take military action of any sort.”
He cited three different incidents where an MRAP could have been used to help deescalate situations and bring them to their conclusion—hopefully a happier one—a lot sooner. The most recent was the shootout by the Circle K convenience store in Mexico two weekends ago between police and South Paris resident Steve Piirainen, who died from gunshot wounds to the neck and chest inflicted by police. Daley said three law enforcement officers were pinned down behind their cruisers while Piirainen was inside a truck with a firearm and no one could approach him, even after he was shot, since the space was wide open and there was no cover.
“We literally waited three hours for an armored vehicle,” Daley said, who was at the scene of the shooting and said the vehicle came from the Bangor area. “Had we had an armored vehicle at our disposal, we could have driven up, one, blocked the officers so he could shoot all day long so they could just leave and get out from their cars and get to safety. We could have driven up … to his vehicle and literally conversed with him and asked him, ‘Do you need help? Are you under surrender?’”
Daley pointed to an incident several years ago when an elderly woman in the Mechanic Falls/Minor area was shot by a family member and ended up dying in her driveway because police and first responders couldn’t get to her since they were under fire from the gunman holed up in the house. He also recalled Carl Drega of Bow, N.H., who in 1997 killed two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor during a shootout, along with wounding three other law enforcement officers, before being killed by police.
The chief deputy said if the sheriff’s department had an MRAP, it would take at most 45 minutes to get almost anywhere in Oxford County, and in situations like these, the vehicle could be deployed a lot quicker. And the outcomes of these violent episodes could have been different, he said.
In the application for the MRAP, the Associated Press reported Cpl. George Cayer of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department wrote, “Maine’s western foothills face a ‘previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.’”
Daley called Oxford County “wonderful, beautiful place to live,” which has an extremely low violent crime rate compared to other parts of the country.
“We would be remiss to bury our heads in the sand to think that these things don’t happen in Oxford County, because they do, although they’re very limited,” he said, adding people shouldn’t be alarmed. “That’s our job, let us be worried.”
Daily referenced the 9/11 hijackers who crossed the Canadian border into Maine and stayed here before the 2001 terrorists attack. The sheriff’s department now participates in Operation Stonegarden, where deputies help Homeland Security patrol the Canadian border.
But it’s things even closer to home that the sheriff’s department focuses on as part of its duties in protecting the residents of Oxford County, including domestic terrorism. Daley explained this can take the form of school and mass shootings and threats on the natural gas pipeline that runs through the county, along with human and drug trafficking.
According to Daley, the sheriff’s department receives daily bulletins from federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Homeland Security and Border Patrol, about sovereign citizens from white supremacist groups, outlaw motorcycle gangs, homegrown eco-terrorists and the like. The sheriff’s department assists these federal agencies with investigations on a number of things from threats on the Poland Springs water plants to death threats to the president made by Oxford County residents. Several times a year, deputies will pull over individuals who the department has been warned are involved in radical extremism or something else, he said. Deputies have to be aware of who these people are and figure out what they’re doing in Oxford County, he added.
“We have to continue to to train for the worst,” Daley said, noting the sheriff’s department goes through all types of training as often as possible. “Our primary role is to patrol the streets, answer complaints and do that. But our other role is to have a presence and be aware and be prepared in case any of these disastrous events occur.”
As far the MRAP vehicle is concerned, it’s not completely off the table for the sheriff’s department. He said if a vehicle that’s closer to Maine becomes available or if the Department of Defense offered to ship it for free, the department would accept it. Daley said he didn’t want to get into details as to what type of protective gear is at the deputies disposal, except to say, “we don’t have enough.”
“It’s a free vehicle. … If we only use it one time to save one person’s life, then it’s worth it,” he said.