ROCKLAND – Three Knox County sheriff hopefuls all have longtime careers in law enforcement but differing ideas on how they would run the department as top administrator.
On Nov. 7, a sheriff’s detective, a retired Rockland police chief and a sheriff’s chief deputy will compete for the four-year elected post.
The candidates are sheriff’s Chief Deputy Todd Butler, an independent; Detective Donna Dennison, a Democrat; and retired Rockland Police Chief Alfred Ockenfels, a Republican, who ousted incumbent Sheriff Daniel Davey in the June primary.
Dennison, 54, who lives in St. George, began her law enforcement career in 1985, working in the jail and in dispatch. She has worked her way up the ranks to detective.
Dennison wants to be sheriff, she said, “because I can [and] I want to make some changes.”
“I want us to be proud again,” she said, referring to publicity involving the Sheriff’s Department and a recent strip-search lawsuit. “We’ve got some real smart people working here. One bad thing makes us look bad.”
In regard to the pending strip-search lawsuit against Knox County, all three candidates said the jail needs better supervision and training to ensure policies and laws are followed.
In 1981, Butler, 45, started out as a patrol deputy, working his way to second-in-command over the next 25 years. As an administrator, he has served as a lieutenant in charge of patrol and as chief deputy since 1997. He lives in South Thomaston with his wife, Becky, and their two daughters.
Butler wants to be sheriff so he can “move the sheriff’s office in a new and positive direction,” he said, “one based on community involvement.”
“I’m the only candidate that has the experience, the education and the training to operate both a jail and a law enforcement agency,” he said. “I’m fully aware of what the current issues are and how to address them.”
Ockenfels, 61, who lives in Rockport with his wife, Betsy, retired in April 2005 after 26 years with the Rockland Police Department, 16 as chief.
“I’ve got the energy and I certainly have the background,” Ockenfels said. “I’m the most qualified and credentialed of the three candidates, and I have a proven track record.
“Change is good,” Ockenfels said. “I think there should be some cap” on the sheriff’s tenure.
Butler said he would establish a jail advisory committee that includes members from a cross-section of the community, such as drug, alcohol and mental health professionals, and representatives from area church organizations.
“There are a number of groups in the community dedicated to helping people with harmful behaviors that can be brought in,” Butler said.
His ideas for alternatives to incarceration are specialized courts that deal with crimes related to drugs, mental health issues and domestic violence. These courts would fashion sentences with supervised release and specific terms offenders must follow.
“They belong in an environment where they can get the help they need,” Butler said. “These aren’t original ideas, but they’ve been tried and are successful in other places.
“Domestic violence court in Cumberland County works wonders,” he said. “Drug court in Hancock County works wonders. Why not here?
“It’s not just a law enforcement issue,” he said. “It’s a community issue.”
One of Ockenfels’ main objectives is to call for an entire audit of the department by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and to begin the process for accreditation.
While chief in Rockland, he called for a similar audit, which was canceled when the association learned there was a pending federal lawsuit against the department by a fellow officer, whose claim includes sexual and racial discrimination within the department.
That lawsuit remains open, but some defendants have been dropped. Ockenfels and the city manager remain defendants in the case.
Ockenfels admits the audit and accreditation process are expensive, but said the cost is well worth setting standards that will diminish lawsuits and save in insurance premiums.
The retired chief said he would increase staff training and wages, and he said he would work to change costs to the islands and towns with police departments.
“People don’t elect to be born [on islands],” Ockenfels said of the added cost Vinalhaven and North Haven pay for law enforcement coverage.
Butler said Maine law requires all towns, including islands, to pay 100 percent of dedicated coverage.
Ockenfels said deputies could make daily trips to the islands at no extra cost, but “a resident deputy is a different story.”
Accreditation does not relieve counties from liability, Butler said, noting the only department in Maine that is accredited is Cumberland County.
Butler plans to work with municipalities that have police departments to provide extra services, such as court coverage.
Dennison’s plan is to “bring about positive change,” beginning with a restructuring, she said, in “equalizing the workload.:
“It seems to me the higher up you are, the less work you do and the more pay you get,” she said. “I’m used to working. I want to be a working sheriff. Politics are not my cup of tea.
“Both my opponents have good qualifications,” she said. “I can’t compete against that. I think I’ve got good common sense. Sometimes that goes a good long ways.”
If elected, Dennison would tackle the most serious problem in Knox County – drugs – by establishing a drug task force with an educational component.
“If I get the job, [we] will start a drug task force,” she said. “If we can team up with organizations, we can do quite a bit.”