ROCKLAND — “We are who we hang out with,” said Councilor Valli Geiger. “We’ve worked really hard in Rockland to have an excellent reputation. I think it hurts us to partner with such an organization.”
In a 1 to 4 vote (Mayor Lisa Westkaemper voting in favor of the grant) April 13, the Rockland City Council refused to accept a $7,000 grant from the federal Customs and Border Protection that would have financed additional overtime pay for Rockland police officers.
The Council convened April 13 via Zoom, a teleconference platform used by many Midcoast municipalities during the pandemic.
Police Chief Chris Young discussed the grant offering during the April 6 agenda-setting meeting, presenting it as an opportunity to put more bicycle and pedestrian officers onto Rockland streets. And, though Council members stated enthusiasm for the benefits to the city, as well as their high regard for Chief Young, the reputation of the funding source could not be ignored.
Used with Homeland Security funds, “Operation Stone Garden,” in place since at least 2007, is for state and local law enforcement agencies, but with the caveat that information gathered by the localities would be shared with the border patrol.
Young learned of Operation Stone Garden when another law enforcement agency asked if Rockland PD would be interested in the program. According to Young, the agency explained to him that the money would be for increased border security with very broad parameters.
“Rockland would be considered a friendly force partner, available to receive funding to place additional officers on patrol shifts to increase our ability to proactively patrol the city,” he said during the April 13 Council meeting. “The caveat being that there had to be a border patrol nexus. Given the border that the Rockland Police Department is responsible for, I immediately thought of enhancing our community engagement.”
Rockland’s jurisdiction involves commercial and recreational boaters in the harbor, foot and bicycle patrol along Main Street, as well as extending those patrols into the neighborhoods.
“All of these initiatives would put an officer on or near our border for increased border security while building partnerships within the community,” he said. “These partnerships would allow us to gain public trust and confidence, which fosters information sharing. It helps us identify possible criminal activity going on that we may not otherwise be aware of.”
Such activities include child abuse and exploitation, drug trafficking, human trafficking, domestic violence, and other crimes that may go under-reported, or unreported altogether.
Still, Council members remained wary by the CBP’s past reputation. The current leader of Maine’s CBP is a former Laredo agent who allegedly took part in a Secret Shadow Facebook account, according to Geiger.
The page allegedly traded insults about people of color, immigrants, and refugees. Other councilors cited other histories of alleged border patrol abuses.
Though Councilor Nate Davis said he has great faith in the City’s staff and administration, this particular offer is “a bridge too far” for him to accept.
Said Councilor Ben Dorr, “I believe that the reason they [Chief Young and Fire Chief Chris Whytock] do such good work is because they have self-governance.”
Seven thousand dollars, said Dorr, is a meager price tag to be held to if, in the future, someone wants to hold something over Rockland’s head.
As devil’s advocate, Councilor Ed Glaser stated that some people might say that Rockland doesn’t want CBP protection against illegal border crossers.
“That’s not really what it’s about,” he said. “An organization like that has a choice in how you enforce the laws....And they have a long history of abuses in terms of how they enforce the laws. Are those really the people we want to align ourselves with? I don’t think so.”
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org