Waldo County sheriff post draws two candidates in rare contested race

By Ethan Andrews | Oct 10, 2018
Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton, left, is defending his position against challenger John Gibbs, a Belfast Police sergeant.

In the first contested race for Waldo County sheriff in decades, voters will be choosing between an incumbent, who has connected the department with medical and social services during his first term, and a hungry police sergeant, who is looking to make a leap in rank and bring some changes to the county's law enforcement agency.

Sheriff Jeff Trafton, who is serving his first term, was previously a troop commander for Maine State Police, chief of Belfast Police and chief deputy at the Sheriff's Office before he was elected sheriff in 2014.

Challenger John Gibbs is in his 28th year with the Belfast Police Department.

In short, both have extensive law enforcement experience and strong local ties. So, how do they differ?

In a recent interview with The Republican Journal, Gibbs raised questions about the county's re-entry center, which has been operating in Belfast since 2010. The center accepts men at the end of prison or jail terms for nonviolent crimes and helps with their transition from prison to civil society, connecting them with mentors and jobs.

The goal is to reduce recidivism, and a study commissioned by the county in 2015 appeared to show that it has been a success.

However, in his work with Belfast Police, Gibbs said he frequently meets former residents of the program who have put down roots in Belfast but have not reformed. Because the re-entry center serves multiple counties, he said, criminals are being funneled into Belfast from other parts of the state and staying here.

"I question the recidivism rate and how it's measured," he said. "So, I want to do more research on that," he said. "And I want to present those numbers to the citizens, because I don't think they're getting the true picture at the moment."

Trafton refuted that theory, both from his own experience and the 2015 study, which found a 31-percent recidivism rate among graduates of the program — about 300 people at that time — as compared with a national rate of about 70 percent. He noted that Maine had not done a statewide recidivism study.

Gibbs said the department could benefit from better communication with the public and among officers from different law enforcement agencies. He was an early adopter of social media in police work, both as a way to humanize officers and to solicit help from the general public, and said he would bring that approach with him to the Sheriff's Office.

Additionally, Gibbs said police communication could be improved by using GPS locators on cruisers. The system would shorten response times, he said, and the cost of outfitting the department is only likely to get cheaper as wireless technology becomes more widespread.

"I have a $15 thing on my key chain that can tell me where my keys are," he said. "Things are changing all the time."

Trafton has put a strong focus on curbing domestic violence. He wrote a successful grant to hire a domestic violence detective and brought New Hope for Women into the same building as the Sheriff's Office to connect support services with investigations.

The sheriff has taken a similar approach to treating drug abuse at the re-entry center, partnering recently with Seaport Community Health Center to provide medication-assisted treatment for residents with opioid addiction.

Gibbs said the best way to combat the opioid epidemic is likely to be through early education. "If you can just get people to not try it, that's your goal," he said. "But once they do, it's almost like the point of no return."

"We really have to start, I feel like, on a national level, of education," he said, "right when the kids are young. And maybe 30 years from now we'll see a change."

Trafton said his corrections experience, both as chief deputy and now as sheriff, sets him apart in the current race. During his first three years at the Sheriff's Office, as chief deputy, his primary focus was corrections.

"We're the only re-entry center in the state of Maine at the county level," he said, "and I think it's critical for that to be managed and taken care of properly. You have to have some experience, and I have that experience."

Gibbs stressed the rare opportunity for Waldo County voters to choose between two candidates for sheriff.

"What I'm offering is John Gibbs, the person that you all know," he said, adding that he believes he can "offer a new perspective."

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.