A 15-year law enforcement veteran is Aroostook County’s new sheriff.
Peter A. Johnson of Presque Isle, most recently the law enforcement division commander for the sheriff’s office, took the helm on Sept. 1 when former Sheriff Shawn Gillen retired.
Gov. Janet Mills appointed him as sheriff on Aug. 31 to finish Gillen’s elected term.
Under Maine law, the governor must appoint someone enrolled in the same political party as the departing sheriff, until a new successor is chosen by election. Gillen was a Democrat. Johnson will serve until an election for sheriff next year.
Johnson steps into the position as law enforcement across Maine struggles to find enough officers. That trend has not affected Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, likely due to a positive working environment and continued training on mental illness and substance use disorders, Johnson said Thursday.
The sheriff’s office has a full patrol staff of 16 deputies and two commanders, and as far as Johnson knows the Aroostook County Jail, with 34 employees, is the only one in the state that’s fully staffed.
“We are the exception. As most people are aware, it seems like the state police are having a harder and harder time getting candidates,” Johnson said. “We’ve been really fortunate that it hasn’t impacted us here, but I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to survive that.”
Across Maine, law enforcement has struggled to find enough officers. The Maine State Police reduced rural patrols last year, citing difficulties filling positions. Earlier this year, Boothbay Harbor was among 25 short-staffed departments, and Limestone closed its police department in April due to lack of staff.
But some places in Aroostook County are on the healthy side of the trend. The Presque Isle Police Department has a full roster for the first time in about five years. Johnson hopes the sheriff’s office continues in the right direction.
Johnson formerly worked in social services. He started his law enforcement career at the Presque Isle Police Department in 2008, serving as a patrol officer and domestic violence detective. He transferred to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, then in 2014 joined the sheriff’s office as a patrol deputy.
Four years later, he became supervisor of the drug enforcement agency, and last October returned to the sheriff’s office as commander of the patrol division.
Johnson will officially be sworn in as sheriff at a later date. He will also name a new patrol commander.
Mental health and substance use disorders top The County’s law enforcement concerns as officers encounter more and more people who are affected, Johnson said.
Several deputies have taken crisis intervention team training, which teaches officers about several conditions, what services are available and how to interact with people with these conditions, homelessness or other concerns, he said.
During his nearly five years as sheriff, Gillen advocated for a new jail. The Aroostook County Jail in Houlton was built in 1889 and underwent its last major renovation in the late 1980s.
Johnson favors a new facility, but he hopes the building would include treatment spaces for those with mental health and substance use disorders. The jail does what it can, but its capacity is limited, he said.
“I think we should be giving everybody at the jail the best opportunity to be successful when they leave,” he said.
Johnson said he would immediately start on the budgeting process. He also wants to consider how the office can be prepared for law enforcement shortages.
Right now the department is in a good place, due largely to staff who are passionate about what they do, he said.
Johnson worked with Gillen on many ventures, like improving communications and recordkeeping, said Aroostook County Administrator Ryan D. Pelletier.
“I don’t think the public completely understands the investments made in the sheriff’s office that Peter was a part of, and I believe he will continue that work,” Pelletier said.
Those projects included a $1 million enhanced record management system that all deputies and local police departments can access, and an ongoing communications tower upgrade to improve radio transmission by law enforcement, fire and ambulance personnel, Pelletier said.
Johnson is a lifelong Aroostook County resident. He and his wife, Chelsie, live in Presque Isle and have a daughter, 31, and a son, 3 1/2.