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Candidates for sheriff offer positions on issues facing County

Editor’s note: Ahead of the Nov. 6 election, we put the same six questions to the two candidates on the ballot for Aroostook County sheriff. Their responses follow with the candidates listed in alphabetical order.

Shawn Gillen

Age: 46

Residence: Blaine

Family: Married for 24 years, 3 children

Current occupation: Acting sheriff

Experience: 10 years U.S. military; two years of college/criminal justice; 25 years with the sheriff’s office serving as corrections officer, inmate transport, patrol, 13 years with Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (7 years as a supervisor), 3 years as chief deputy, and since February, acting sheriff.

What are your views on medical and recreational marijuana?

As the constitutional chief law enforcement officer, I don’t have the luxury of having an opinion that affects our approach to dealing with marijuana. I must follow the laws, without consideration for how I feel about them. I remain concerned about the conflict between state and federal laws and, on a personal level, I admit it has been difficult for me to adjust to the changes.

What is your position on deputies conducting field drug testing?

I led drug enforcement operations for several years while assigned to MDEA. The dangers associated with fentanyl and carfentanyl were something we did not have to regularly deal with back then. Inhaling very small particles of these compounds will kill you — plain and simple. We now have technology available to us for an initial test so officers are not needlessly exposed to danger by opening packages. I have joined every modern police agency and we do not allow deputies to open drug packages for testing. Frankly, I care too much about those I work with to allow that.

What most sets you apart from your opponent?

I have a positive message and a record of successful leadership. I am honest. I am kind. I accept responsibility for my failures and I invest my energy into building professional relationships that benefit the people we serve. I believe this is the reason for all of the public endorsements I have received. Despite my opponent attacking Sheriff Darrell Crandall and myself and consistently running a toxic, negative campaign, I have continued to focus on sharing our positive message, impressive record and priorities for the next four years.

What is your stance on inmates receiving addiction treatment medication while incarcerated at the Aroostook County Jail?

The state prison and County jails do not allow Suboxone and some of us are being sued to change that. The reasons it is prohibited are simple; in its most common form (sublingual film), it is a heavily abused drug and would be concealed and traded as contraband inside the facilities. This creates safety issues for staff and inmates. It also is not clear that the drug is “medically necessary,” which is the standard. We are currently working with medical providers to see if the injectable version, which would eliminate the contraband issue, may be an option. The state and counties will continue to face lawsuits until we find a solution that does not impact safety.

Presque Isle Police Chief Matt Irwin (center) and Chief Deputy Shawn Gillen of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office (second from right) answer questions from two of their biggest fans: ACAP Head Start students Lileth Devoe, 5, (left) and Bailee Bard, 5, while state Rep. Trey Stewart looks on. Irwin, Gillen and Stewart visited students who attend the Head Start program at the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center on Friday, Jan. 19. (Melissa Lizotte)

What do you see as some of the biggest issues impacting the Aroostook County Jail?

We worked with the state to increase our capacity from 66 to 117 inmates at no cost to The County. Before that, we had to board 30-40 inmates at other jails. This upgrade significantly reduced our transportation costs. Unfortunately, the courts move slowly and inmates wait in jail too long before their case is heard. This drives up our jail population because most jail inmates are “pre-trial,” meaning their cases are still pending. We also have to wait and worry each year to see if the Legislature is going to properly fund the state’s share of our jail budget. This is a leftover side effect of the state’s failed jail consolidation. Finally, many people with mental illness, who are unable to access adequate care in their community, are sitting in jail for petty crimes and we can’t get them into psychiatric treatment beds. This has to stop and I will continue that fight.

If elected, what new policies or changes would you like to make to the Aroostook County Sheriffs Office?

I have had the honor of serving as chief deputy sheriff and then acting sheriff for the last four years and have been an integral part of the leadership team that ushered in the most sweeping systemic change this agency has seen in 40 years. Ask anyone in the field of law enforcement or corrections to verify that. We have doubled our patrol force, deputies have the best equipment and training grant money can buy, and our deputies solve crime at a rate double the state and national average. We have three deputies assigned to MDEA doing drug investigations. We have aced every state jail inspection, which is not easy since there are more than 250 individual standards, and we have been praised by state inspectors for having some of the most practical programs for inmates. We have donated more than 5,000 hours of inmate community service to communities and non-profits each year. And, every budget year since we started,  we have spent over $200,000 less than what was approved in our budget. Frankly, this agency is operating very well and does not need change for the sake of change. However, we will continue to look for ways to improve the delivery of services while not reaching deeper into your pockets and driving up your property taxes. A list of our priorities may be found at www.gillenforsheriff.com.

Matt Irwin

Age: 53

Hometown: Medina, Ohio

Family: Wife, Nicole and four daughters, Kirsten, Megan, Emily, Molly

Current occupation: Former police chief and candidate for sheriff

Experience: 27 years Orange County Sheriff’s Office; 7 years Presque Isle Police Chief

What are your views on medical and recreational marijuana?

I appreciate the possibilities of medical marijuana’s positive impact or ability to provide patient relief from the side effects of certain diseases and illnesses.  I have witnessed firsthand the inability of the state of Maine to adequately regulate the current program and the overwhelming failure to control the substance in a meaningful way.  All other medications, which require a prescription, have significant oversight and accountability … not marijuana in Maine.

I believe the state is ill-equipped and unprepared to adequately regulate recreational marijuana.  While proponents describe a significant revenue stream to local and state governments, they fail to admit or recognize the public health and public safety ramifications and costs. With a failure of adequate oversight, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) levels can be manipulated through genetic modifications which makes the marijuana significantly more potent and addictive. Aroostook has already responded to accidental ingestions by children at our local emergency rooms.  No other intoxicating substance, including alcohol and prescription drugs, is lawfully provided to the consumer without meeting regulations and clearly identifying dosage amounts.

What is your position on deputies conducting field drug testing?

I have been clear about my position that law enforcement officers are subjected to potential exposure of dangerous drugs and substances virtually every day in Aroostook County. I have strongly advocated for finding ways to safely handle and test these substances when needed.  Many years ago when HIV/AIDS and hepatitis were newly understood to be transferable through blood and bodily fluid contact, law enforcement was faced with similar concerns. Today, crime scenes are processed hundreds of times each day across the country where the potential for exposure to these blood-borne pathogens exists. The risk is less today than it was decades ago because proper safeguards were instituted to make a dangerous process safe and controlled.  Law enforcement cannot fail to act in these circumstances; we must find a way for our officers to take necessary and timely action.

Permitting drug dealers to roam our community and continue to prey upon our families and friends when probable cause to arrest is present, but for testing the substance, sends the wrong message to drug dealers and to our law abiding communities. It’s also a failure to appreciate and understand the capabilities and competency of our law enforcement officers.

What most sets you apart from your opponent?

My wide-ranging experience over the past 34 years is vastly different from my opponent.  Having worked in one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country and been assigned to many different responsibilities within that organization along with the volume of calls for service and cases to investigate, provides an experience level my opponent cannot match.  I have occupied a supervisory or managerial position since 1999. My assignments in narcotics, criminal investigations, internal affairs, patrol, corrections and others prepared me to take the role of police chief.

More than seven years as the Presque Isle police chief, having handled two officer-involved shootings, day to day administration and decision making, annual budget preparation, department related initiatives along with my previously stated experience have prepared me to take on the role of Aroostook County sheriff.

My experiences and roles with several task forces, boards of directors, and steering committees (including Child Advocacy Centers, Child Fatality Review Committee, Sexual Assault Response Team, Child Abduction Response Team, Domestic Violence services) concerning community resources and services has prepared me to work with community partners to ensure we are meeting the needs of our residents.

What is your stance on inmates receiving addiction medications such as suboxone while in custody?

I am open to the idea of prisoners, who face withdrawal from opioid addiction while in custody, being provided with medication to relieve their withdrawal symptoms, whether it’s suboxone or another medication.  The cost of such a program and how it’s paid for would have to be determined. Many jail systems across the country have deployed similar programs and found them useful in helping prisoners released back into the community to continue their addiction recovery treatment beyond the jail.  

As part of a larger, more comprehensive initiative (with resources already in place) to better prepare prisoners for success after their release into the community, substance abuse issues must be addressed during incarceration.  The introduction of a medication to minimize withdrawal symptoms seems reasonable.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues impacting the Aroostook County Jail?

Concerning corrections officers, I will ensure proper salary levels are in place and the officer per inmate ratio is adequate for a safe work environment. I would seek to ensure the professional training needs of corrections officers are met along with providing career pathing for employees.

Concerning prisoner care, we must ensure prisoner mental health and drug addiction resources already in place are working as intended. Those that aren’t must be eliminated and those that are working should be evaluated for potential enhancement. We must make the best of our resources in this regard if we are to have any hope or expectation that many prisoners can become productive citizens once released.  

Regarding external forces, the state of Maine and the counties must find a way to adequately fund our county jails and prisons. Failing to do so leaves an already “at risk” population at greater risk and worse yet, leaves our law abiding public in jeopardy of future crimes that could’ve been prevented.

Also, there currently are great deficiencies in moving prisoners around The County for court appearances and from roadside arrest to AC jail intake. I will assess this process and improve this service.

If elected, what new policies or changes would you like to make to the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office?

(1) I intend to better coordinate our resources to ensure a more complete and immediate response to drug trafficking investigations. We must address smaller, street level drug crimes with equal interest as those larger scale drug operations. (2) I intend to work to bring all Aroostook County police departments and the ACSO into a singular records management and dispatch system so that information sharing and analytics can be shared with all. (3) I intend to address prisoner transportation matters to ease the burden on municipal police departments when making arrests. (4) I intend to address prisoner intake matters to ensure a more cooperative relationship with municipal police departments when prisoners are delivered to the AC jail. (5) I intend to work with municipal police departments to better coordinate our recruiting of new officers, training them, and retaining them.  Law enforcement in The County can work together to recruit new officers as a group rather than each department paying separately to do so. As the constitutional law enforcement leader, I believe the sheriff has an obligation to make sure all officers are trained in the field equally so that all citizens in need of police services are getting the best quality service available.

For more information about the Irwin campaign, visit his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Irwin4Sheriff/

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