Open Letter from Orono Police Chief Josh Ewing

I usually try to be brief with our posts, as I find myself tuning out of the lengthy ones found elsewhere. But..... through some recent conversations I’ve had with members of the community, and emails I’ve received suggesting ways we could improve as an agency, I believe it necessary to say more than usual. So, please bear with me if I ramble. 

I like the fact that some have come in to speak with me about the Orono Police Department’s policies and practices. I believe the conversations were mutually beneficial, with knowledge and ideas being exchanged. While I certainly sympathize and agree that our society’s socio-economic policies (income, education, employment, representation) continue to disproportionally affect communities of color, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer size of the issue. But because law enforcement is currently at the forefront (I’d argue it is more appropriately placed at the end of this overall problem) of what is truly a larger issue, I know there’s a responsibility to act within the areas we can control, and for Orono PD that means how we train, act, and impact this town. 

Treating people fairly and with compassion, especially when it comes to enforcing the law, is not a new concept for us. It is something I figured out early on in my career, and it has been a standard of how the Orono Police Department does business for many years. Since August of 2010, the Orono Police Department has had a policy on prohibiting bias/racial based policing (that’s right, for almost a decade). Over the years since, we’ve received many trainings on implicit bias, investigation of hate/bias crimes, and cultural diversity, among others. All these trainings speak to trying to see people from their point of view, not just our own. How are these trainings applied, and how do we test their effectiveness, you ask? Good question. One way, and I think the most effective way, is how much success officers achieve while dealing with people during contacts (traffic stops, criminal/civil incidents, accidents, etc). And by success, I mean how well did the interaction go? If officers are showing respect, compassion, and fairness, the interaction should go well even if the end result is a ticket or an arrest. The successful officer learns how to put people at ease, create rapport, determine the appropriate outcome, and is able to effectively serve the community. The opposite, the unsuccessful officer, creates more stress, complaints, and non-compliance, and causes themselves, other officers, and the department headaches. Even those officers tend to change their ways for their own survival, if nothing else. 

But, since that is anecdotal in nature, we have other ways of monitoring success of anti-bias training. We routinely conduct reviews of written warnings, tickets, summons, and arrests, specifically looking at the breakdown by race. For instance, in 2019, we stopped a total of 2775 vehicles for violations. Black people received 4.3% of the written warnings, and 4.8 % of the traffic tickets issued. Of the 123 people arrested and taken to jail in 2019, 3 of them were black. Additionally, we review all complaints against officers, looking specifically for complaints related to biased-based policing. And, every three months we randomly review body-cam video of each officer to ensure proper use and policy adherence, and to look for training needs. During one such review of an arrest, we discovered an officer had violated our professional standards for behavior (he made a sarcastic comment to a person he’d arrested) so we counseled the officer (in written form) on appropriate behavior and our future expectations. 

Another analysis that is conducted annually is a review of our uses of force. In 2019, 16 incidents involved a use of force. Only one incident (OUI, resisting arrest) resulted in a subject receiving an injury (scraped hands), and that person was treated at the scene by medical personnel. The most serious type of force used was someone being taken to the ground to be secured in handcuffs. There were 4 such incidents, and with each the subject was resisting arrest or attempting to flee. There were no instances of Tasers being used, other than being pointed at someone in order to gain compliance. 14 of the instances involved the use of drugs or alcohol, and one of the instances was due to a mental/emotional crisis. All the uses of force involved white people. I sometimes joke that, here in Orono, we typically hurt people’s feelings far more often than we ever come close to actually injuring someone in a use of force (not actually a joke....) 

Everyone hired in this agency is well aware of the “community involvement” and “service” mindset that is required to work and succeed here. Those who don’t get it move on (or are moved on). The officers who only want to do law enforcement (which is not unreasonable for someone who joined the law enforcement profession) tend to become disenchanted and usually go elsewhere. I’ve stated many times that it’s not easy to work in Orono and we have high standards that are sometimes difficult to maintain. For instance, I once received a complaint that a community member waived at an officer as they passed each other in traffic and the officer didn’t wave back (see above statement about hurt feelings). Despite the frivolous nature of that complaint, one such high standard that I will never let go of is the concept of showing compassion and empathy in everything our officers do. I’m sure they are sick and tired of me coming up with new ways of discussing the incredible responsibility they have to honor the profession of law enforcement, and that EVERYTHING THEY DO MATTERS! 

I think it needs to be said that our officers exhibit the exact behaviors we expect of them on a daily basis. I’ve seen them display more compassion than is ever expected (buying meals for the one or two homeless people that drift into town each summer, spending time just listening to them, reaching out to resources in an effort to help them). And, when businesses become frustrated with the behavior of said homeless people (because they smell, are talking to themselves, are loitering, or are disruptive) it is the police who have to gently tell them they’re no longer allowed to be there. Our officers take no pleasure in that, and have to shoulder the responsibility of being the enforcement arm of society’s failed systems. Because, when the person (who has mental illness) violates the trespass order (a repeating pattern), we are forced to arrest them in order to stop the behavior. And another thing, let’s be honest, most people have no idea what really goes on outside of their comfortable space they’ve created. Our officers witness first-hand the ravages of mental illness, drug/alcohol addiction, poverty, and violence/abuse that occur regularly. Yes, here in Orono, and yes, in close proximity to where you live. Despite that, they still treat the people involved in those incidents with respect and compassion. Even when the person they’re dealing with is profoundly angry, spewing violent statements, and possesses multiple guns (typically shirtless, with a gun tucked into a waistband). Even then, we turn ourselves inside out trying to ensure we utilize the best approach in an effort to avoid a violent confrontation. 

With all that said (and I’ve got plenty more to talk about), we still understand that not everything we do is perfect, and we likely fail in many ways without knowing it. So, since relationships are the key to understanding another person’s perspective, I hope you will come talk with us if you feel marginalized in any way. Let us get to know you, get to know us in return, and I promise we can achieve a positive outcome. If we need to change, if there are ways we can improve, we’ll do it. The Orono Police Department has never rested on its laurels, we are always seeking improvement, and we will forever be dedicated to serving this community. 

Josh Ewing, Police Chief