ROCKLAND — A committee created last year to “investigate ways to improve community policing in Rockland” has been meeting for six months but has yet to come up with any formal recommendations.

At its latest meeting Monday afternoon, April 18, there was some verbal sparring between one of the members and the police chief.

Committee member Joseph Steinberger, an attorney and former city councilor, said he recently went on a ride along with officers. He said while he praised their officers for their interactions, he said the patrolling in big sports utility vehicles was not the best use of resources. He suggested officers spend time at the recreation center and meet with youth, or downtown, or at athletic fields.

“This would be a way to build trust,” Steinberger said.

Committee member Dana Crane said she also did not see the need to drive around in large SUVs.

Committee members Brian Messing and Russell Beauchemin disagreed, saying patrolling all of Rockland was an effective use of resources. Beauchemin said he does not see a waste of resources. He used the example of the case last week of a masked man who entered a woman’s bedroom in the middle of the night and placed his hands over her face as a case that requires considerable follow up investigation as an example of the effective use of time by officers.

Steinberger said the vehicle patrols do not provide in-person interaction but are designed to scare people into compliance.

Police Chief Joel Neal interjected and rejected Steinberger’s claim.

“We are not scaring people. If you are obeying the law, you shouldn’t be worried,” the chief said.

Steinberger said there are people with little income who have let their inspection or registration lapse and are scared when seeing a police cruiser.

The chief also said the SUVs used by the department are cost efficient since they patrol during all four seasons without changing tires or putting on chains.

Beauchemin said the SUVs used by the police are not large ones but the same vehicles soccer moms and dads use.

The chief said the department has fewer officers than from years ago when there were two officers who did bicycle patrols downtown, a motorcycle officer, and a harbor patrol officer. The department has 11 patrol officers who need to cover 168 hours each week.

Steinberger persisted and said having officers patrol all over the city allowed for the incident when two officers were found to have killed porcupines while on the job. Those officers were immediately placed on leave when their actions were discovered and then fired and were convicted of animal abuse.

The Committee members also discussed, without reaching agreement, on whether to recommend adding a mental health professional to the police department.

Messing and Crane voiced support for adding such a position. Steinberger and Beauchemin voiced opposition.

“It’s easy for us to recommend more spending to the City Council but the public wants cuts,” Steinberger said. He noted hiring one mental health professional would only cover eight hours a day for five days of the week.

Committee members also discussed how to attract officers and retain the ones the city has.

Chief Neal said the city needs to go on the offensive with higher pay and benefits. He cited similar-sized departments that are paying far more than Rockland.

“Today, we’re getting smoked,” the chief said.

Steinberger talked about a proposal to start a law enforcement training class at the Mid-Coast School of Technology, but said there is no support at the school for such a program.

The Committee said it would invite Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll to attend its next meeting to discuss how he enforces the law.

Chief Neal, who attends the committee’s Zoom meetings, pointed out to committee members Rockland police cover Rockland and not the Sheriff’s Office. He said the two departments, and other local agencies, cooperate and back up each other when needed.

Steinberger said he was going to have the sheriff on his WRFR radio show this week and would invite him to attend a future meeting.

The committee discussed at its April 4 meeting having Carroll attend its next meeting but no one invited him.

At that April 4 meeting, committee member Angela McIntyre said it was also appropriate to reach out to community groups about enforcement and needs of people who interact with police.

“The public was clear,” McIntyre said.

“What public?” Chief Neal asked.

McIntyre said it was the people who spoke at online forum before the City Council last year.

Neal noted at the April 4 meeting currently half the officers have crisis intervention training but will be up to 90 percent will be by the end of the year.

The chief said officers will make referrals to people or their families when they encounter a mental health or substance abuse issue. The department also supports expanding the Good Samaritan law so people are not afraid to call police if they are in the presence of someone who has overdosed on drugs.

He cautioned, however, police will charge someone if they are using drugs if that is prohibited by bail or probation conditions.

The Committee held a session in March on restorative justice.

The Council voted July 12, 2021, to create the ad-hoc police review committee to investigate ways to improve community policing in Rockland and report those recommendations to the City Council. The work was expected to take 12 months to complete, but the committee could ask for additional time.

The committee held its first meeting in October 2021.

A petition was filed with the Rockland City Council in August 2020 by a group calling for reallocating money from police to social services. That petition gathered 135 local signatures. Supporters of the department collected more signatures in response to the original petition.

Appointed to the committee initially were Angela McIntyre, Emily Emmott, Paul Dube, Anne “Pinny” Beebe-Center, Dana Crane, Joseph Steinberger, Paul Dube, and Russell Beauchemin. Brian Messing later filled a vacant position when Dube stepped down. Councilor Nate Davis is a non-voting member of the committee to serve as a liaison to the City Council. Beebe-Center stepped down from the committee this month.