Wild Wild East

On Maine’s islands, the presence of law enforcement is light to nonexistent. So how does a community make do with only the thinnest of thin blue lines?

By Jesse Ellison
Illustration by Richard Mia
On a blustery Saturday afternoon on Vinalhaven, Deputy Rob Potter surveys his turf. Nominally, it’s his turf anyway. Potter, a boyish 56, is the island’s sole law enforcement official. He’s also its animal control officer, its harbormaster, and, with his 16-year-old son, the owner of a small lawn-mowing company. But today, with no calls to respond to, he just sits in his shiny new SUV, emblazoned with “Sheriff: Knox County,” and looks out at the thrumming heart of the island community.

“This is our beloved Carver’s Harbor here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling fishing port across the street. Then, with a chuckle, he adds, “I may be the harbormaster, but I am not in charge.”

Potter’s seemingly easy willingness to accept this fact may owe to his relative success. Historically, cops haven’t had it easy on Vinalhaven. His predecessor, says Potter, used to keep a full set of spare tires on hand at all times because the ones on his vehicle were so frequently flattened. When Potter was first assigned to Vinalhaven, his colleagues told him to try and “choke through” a single year. Three years in, Potter has no intention of ever leaving.

Island

“I friggin’ like it!” he says. “Out here, we’re in an absolute hurry to get nowhere. My brethren think I’m nuts.”

Recruiting and retaining officers to work the island beats is no easy feat, confirms Potter’s boss. “His backup at times is maybe two hours away — at best,” says Knox County Chief Deputy Tim Carroll. “You tell that to other law enforcement officials across the nation and they’re like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

In some ways, Potter’s situation on Vinalhaven couldn’t seem more removed from the national conversation about law enforcement agencies and the communities they police. In a year when TV news was often dominated by scenes of cops in riot gear storming urban neighborhoods, the saga of a solo cop on one of Maine’s idyllic — if rough-around-the-edges — islands might seem trivial. But Potter’s role comes with its own set of complications. In many ways, the relationship between law enforcement and Maine’s island communities is as complex (and occasionally contentious) as in any American city — and it raises similarly tough questions about selective enforcement and the limits of authority.

Insular, wary of outsiders — these are old stereotypes about Maine’s island dwellers. But there’s little doubt the islands tend to attract fiercely independent spirits. All up and down the coast, island residents interviewed for this story reported that they prefer to handle things on their own, that outside law enforcement is really only necessary for the most extreme situations. So how to police a place that doesn’t want outside interference? How does an island’s only cop avoid becoming the default bad guy?

You see everybody every day, whether they’re good friends or people you don’t get along with. You sort out your differences. You don’t have a choice. You’re going to run into water pretty quickly any way you go.

A Vinalhaven lobsterman

And what about the majority of island communities, which opt out of formal law enforcement altogether? Today, the law of the mainland applies to each of Maine’s 15 islands with year-round populations. Tightening insurance requirements put an end to the days when certain islands had looser regulations on things like vehicle inspections. Still, hiring an officer is a big expense for an island community, some of which have wintertime populations in the mid-double-digits. And as residents of the Cranberry Isles affirmed a few years back when they voted against hosting a county deputy, many islands have long been content to police themselves.

“You see everybody every day,” says one Vinalhaven lobsterman, who didn’t want his name used for fear of ruffling feathers, “whether they’re good friends or people you don’t get along with. You sort out your differences. You don’t have a choice. You’re going to run into water pretty quickly any way you go.”

Serious crimes on Maine’s islands are fairly rare, and island old-timers can tell stories of innocuous crimes — often automotive in nature — that sound more like bloopers and punch lines. On many islands, for instance, it is a venerable tradition to move people around in the back of a pickup truck — as many as happen to fit, in the manner of a Third World taxi. Then there’s the tale on the Cranberry Isles of the young driver whose car transmission had no forward gears, so he just drove around in reverse.

Back on Vinalhaven, Deputy Potter’s weekend is characteristically humdrum. He consults with one resident who has a property concern and handles a housing affidavit for another. One evening, he responds to a minor car accident.

But in the two weeks surrounding the July 4th holiday, Potter says he responded to roughly 55 calls for crimes like property damage, public intoxication, car accidents, theft, and vandalism. And back in January, he had the dubious distinction of making the state’s first meth-lab bust of the year.

Potter and other island deputies agree that drugs and alcohol are two of the main driving forces when it comes to criminal activity on the islands.

“The elephant in the room here is the drugs,” says Pinny Beebe-Center, who addressed issues on Vinalhaven, North Haven, Isle au Haut, Matinicus, and elsewhere as a Knox County commissioner from 2002 to 2010 (she’s now a state representative for Rockland and Owls Head). “The islands are rampant with addiction.”

Maine’s islands are not unlike much of small-town America, Beebe-Center says, but the isolation and small populations make substance-abuse issues harder to ignore. Potter and other island deputies agree that drugs and alcohol are two of the main driving forces when it comes to criminal activity on the islands. So does Donna Wiegle, a co-chair of the inter-island Maine Islands Coalition (MIC) advocacy group and director of the health center on Swan’s Island.

“Like any community anywhere in the country, we have a drug problem out here,” she says. “If you don’t have law enforcement here, you can do whatever you want to do.”

That lack of a police deterrent is one contributing factor to substance abuse. But as MIC members discussed during a special panel on the subject earlier this year, a dearth of recovery programs and the stigma of treatment play a role as well. As the Island Institute’s Working Waterfront newspaper mentioned in a recap of the meeting: “If an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is held at a public building on a certain night . . . residents driving by often can identify those attending by the vehicles parked outside.”

As he hopped on the ferry to head home, the text messages would fly, alerting neighbors to his absence.

Another issue raised at the MIC panel was the logistical difficulty of seeking help off the island, a hurdle for those affected by substance abuse as well as domestic abuse. Island logistics also challenge law enforcement officers. In one headline-making incident in 2001, one of Potter’s predecessors on Vinalhaven simply released a man he’d arrested for drunk driving when no boat was available to transport the offender to the mainland detention center. One night last winter, Potter arrested a highly intoxicated man for domestic assault, then got a call that weather wouldn’t allow for a boat to the mainland. So he sat in his office all night long while the man, passed out and in handcuffs, snored and moaned on a cot next to his desk.

“It was a long night,” Potter says. “That was the longest report I’ve ever written.”

Island arrivals and departures, Potter acknowledges, are simply a matter of public knowledge — he knows that the community knows when he’s on the island and when he’s off it. Swan’s Island’s former officer commuted from the mainland, says Wiegle, and as soon as he hopped on the ferry to head home, the text messages would fly, alerting neighbors to his absence.

For those islands without their own deputies, that phenomenon is reversed. When law enforcement shows up on Matinicus, “there’s an immediate hush on the island,” according to town historian Suzanne Rankin. “All the 12-year-olds driving trucks immediately stop.”

There is perhaps no Maine island more synonymous with lawlessness than Matinicus, where (if you believe the rep) underage driving is far from the worst of the bad behavior. The much-mythologized “Pirate Island” sits some 22 miles offshore and, like few other places in America, has attained a certain notoriety for vigilantism over the years. One of Maine’s most fertile fishing grounds, it’s also the state’s most remote and isolated community. Most of the time, the ferry comes just once a month; last February, the population dipped to 19 surely very cold souls.

You can laugh at it. . . . But it starts to get annoying when appliance repair people don’t want to come out here because they’ve heard it’s dangerous.

Eva Murray, longtime Matinicus resident, columnist, and proprietor of the island bakery

Apart from a failed experiment with an on-site deputy in the early 1990s, Matinicus has neither had nor seen the need for an official law enforcement presence, opting instead to appoint constables who can make arrests or (as is currently the case) to rely on town officials like selectmen to respond to incidents and decide whether to request support from the county or the Marine Patrol.

“We have a terrible reputation for lawlessness,” admits Rankin. “But the self-constabulary works a lot of the time. Always, we wish to handle it ourselves. That’s what we feel is best for the island.” She and many others believe this despite a notorious 2009 incident in which veteran lobsterman Vance Bunker shot another lobsterman in the neck during a territorial dispute, partially paralyzing him. Stories like that have helped Matinicus earn its ill repute, but islanders say the infamy is not only undeserved — it’s harmful.

“You can laugh at it. We’re the ‘Pirate Island,’ ” says Eva Murray, longtime Matinicus resident, columnist, and proprietor of the island bakery. “But it starts to get annoying when appliance repair people don’t want to come out here because they’ve heard it’s dangerous.”

And the old canard that Matinicus Islanders hate the police?

“That’s more mythology than anything,” Murray says. “But we have had some bad experiences with police officers being called because of a legitimate dangerous person running around, and then they start looking around and seeing a lot of unregistered vehicles and stuff. And it’s like, c’mon, you’re here to deal with a real problem.

Folks out here, when push comes to shove, will stand with each other. And that’s a heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing.

Megan Wibberly

“If someone is doing something that’s really truly scary,” Murray goes on, “that’s when people come together and say, we’ve got to get this person off the island.”

That collective social pressure sometimes picks up where the legal system leaves off. It’s what happened in the case of Bunker. Though the lobsterman was acquitted on all charges following the high-profile shooting, animus from neighbors prompted him to leave the island. Last year, on Isle au Haut, islanders collectively called for the departure of a convicted sex offender who’d returned after serving a prison sentence. Megan Wibberly, then an Island Institute fellow working a two-year stint on Isle au Haut, described the incident in a 2014 column for The Working Waterfront.

“By standing with [concerned] families, who politely yet firmly expressed their positions, very clear lines were drawn regarding what the island would and would not accept,” Wibberly wrote. “Folks out here, when push comes to shove, will stand with each other. And that’s a heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing.”

But there can be flaws in an island’s self-constabulary, particularly when it comes to handling lesser offenses. “It used to work better,” Murray admits. “Up until a couple of decades ago, a lot more families were here all winter. When people have another home on the mainland, they are less likely to stick their necks out because they know they’ll come back to find a tire slashed or whatever.”

In any small community where law-breakers are friends and neighbors of the law-enforcers, there’s a risk of cultivating a culture of laxity, of chalking up criminal behavior to “boys being boys.” Wiegle recalls one Swan’s Islander who has served stints in prison. When he caused trouble as a teen, she says, neighbors declined to press charges, instead trusting the boy’s family to address the problems. Over time, his actions escalated into bigger and bigger crimes.

If your fear is, ‘Okay, if I turn my fellow fisherman in, he’s going to cut all my traps,’ then that’s tens of thousands of dollars lost.

Donna Wiegle, a co-chair of the inter-island Maine Islands Coalition (MIC) advocacy group and director of the health center on Swan’s Island

“You don’t want to get your neighbors and friends in trouble,” says Wiegle. “And it’s hard to have effective law enforcement if nobody wants to talk about it. . . . In the end, you’re making something bad even worse because you don’t know what to do about it.”

The issue is even more pronounced among lobstermen. Maine’s lobstering community — a major presence on nearly all the inhabited islands — has long been largely self-regulating, allowed to determine and enforce unofficial territories. With livelihoods on the line, fisherman have more to lose by alienating a neighbor.

“There’s a lot of fear by fishermen and their wives to report crime,” Wiegle says. “You have a lot of money invested just sitting in the water. If your fear is, ‘Okay, if I turn my fellow fisherman in, he’s going to cut all my traps,’ then that’s tens of thousands of dollars lost.”

For these reasons and others, Swan’s Islanders have decided that a full-time on-island deputy is worth the roughly $100,000 annual price tag — some 20 percent of the island’s entire municipal budget, not including its tiny school system. This summer, the island disbanded its two-decade-old town police department, led by a series of police chiefs who commuted from the mainland and were often their department’s sole employee. Instead, as on Vinalhaven, Swan’s now contracts with the county sheriff’s office, and Deputy Rob Morang relocated to the island with his family in June.

When I first started coming here, it was like the Wild Wild West.

Deputy Rob Potter

“On the mainland, I don’t think anyone knew where I was from, where I lived, or anything,” says the 40-year-old Morang, reached on his second day on the job. “Now we have people knocking on the door asking about our plans. It’s a whole different way of life.

That closeness, Morang realizes, is essential to good police work.

“In any of these tight-knit communities,” he says, “you really need people to help you and cooperate with you.”

If his colleagues in Knox County have advice for the new deputy, it’s not to come on too strong.

“Discretion is our biggest authoritarial power within law enforcement,” says Chief Deputy Carroll. “On Vinalhaven, Deputy Potter is part of that community. He has to use a lot of tact. A lot of tact and a lot of diplomacy.”

Patrolling the island in his SUV, Potter explains that, in practice, this means always giving a warning before ticketing an islander for a lapsed car registration. It means giving drunk people a lift home. And it means making himself available 24/7, encouraging people to call him at home with any issues — no matter how minor, no matter the hour.

He turns his SUV around and heads slowly back towards town, lifting his hand to wave at everybody who drives past. Every one of them waves back.

“They pay my salary,” Potter says. “I was told that the mood of the community can be set by the attitude of the police. It’s happening all over: cops just wanting to use their nightsticks. I don’t understand it. You have the same goals.”

If the goal is to keep the peace, it seems to be met on Vinalhaven. Today, anyway. Something called the “Pirate Party” is happening this evening on nearby Green’s Island, and all of Vinalhaven seems to be attending, so Potter is looking forward to a quiet night at home with his son. En route to a property check, he recalls the time that an islander discovered a seal — alive, but angry — washed up on one of the island’s quiet, looping roads.

“Someone acquired a lift truck,” Potter remembers, shaking his head in wonder. “We loaded the poor bastard into that and dumped him in the harbor. That was a job.”

One of Potter’s daily tasks is to check on a phone on the north side of the island, the opposite side from Carver’s Harbor, the ferry terminal, and the town center. Mounted on a wooden pole across the thoroughfare from North Haven, it was once a pay phone, but now it’s free, paid for by the town and used primarily to call for a water taxi over to North Haven. Potter gives it a once-over.

“When I first started coming here, it was like the Wild Wild West,” he says. People used to rip the phone out of its box for no good reason, leaving the wires dangling. Today, it seems to be just fine. Property check complete, he turns his SUV around and heads slowly back towards town, lifting his hand to wave at everybody who drives past. Every one of them waves back.

See More From This Issue


photo-email-gif-200

Yes, sign me up for the FREE Down East weekly newsletter.
Email*


Jesse Ellison

Jesse Ellison, of Camden, is a Down East contributing editor.

  • MichaelCNH

    I like to think that in instances of islanders getting up to the dickens, their fellow islanders would band together as one and confront the troublesome neighbors themselves.

    What that would consist of- a stern talking-to, or something far more extreme- well, I guess it’d depend on the severity of the offense, wouldn’t it?

    In any case, perhaps errant islanders find themselves having to suffer a penalty of what Stephen King called “home correction”. Those who go against the grain of the community would be “taken care of”.

    And very likely you’d never hear a whisper of it outside of the community.

  • VHLobster

    If I didn’t live on Vinalhaven, this story would be funny. There is no law on this island. Drunk driving is mandatory. Drugs are everywhere. There is nobody here to stop drunk driving and as Potter said, he’s not going to arrest anybody or else he might have to do his job. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rob but not as law enforcement. Rob is reactive, no proactive.

    Know County Sheriff’s Office: How many people have been arrested for drunk driving. Answer? Zero. I know most people here and nobody is afraid of being arrested. It doesn’t happen.

    And when is it humorous to be afraid to call the Deputy? Rob is right about that. If you do call Rob, there will be retribution by the criminals and Rob will do nothing to help these people.

    My days of fishing are almost over and, like many people here, we can’t wait to leave this place.