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Courts and Crime

Law enforcement agencies across Maine are grappling with a shortage of qualified recruits

Janine Roberts
Robert F. Bukaty
Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts attends a rally to peacefully protest and demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are grappling with a shortage of qualified applicants for vacant positions. They cite a number of reasons, including negative publicity from police brutality cases around the country, the demanding requirements and background checks, and competition in the labor pool. The situation is prompting police departments across the state to pay out big bonuses to attract and keep qualified recruits.

Westbrook Police Chief Sean Lally says there just aren't as many applicants seeking jobs in law enforcement.

"Some of the sins of our peers have tainted our ability to hire," he says.

Lally says negative national headlines about police brutality and cries for police reform and defunding seem to have cast a shadow over the profession. He says there was a time Westbrook would get 30 or 40 applications for one opening. Now he has 4 openings, and a total of just 5 to 10 applicants.

Ed Tolan, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, says one of the first barriers is the rigorous fitness test required to become a police officer.

"And then it gets even tougher after that, there's the interview board, a polygraph exam where good candidates are failing because of what they've done in the past, then you have a psychological examination, then the background investigation. This is a tough process," Tolan says.

And it's a process that takes time. The Brewer Police Department has three recruits waiting to go to the Maine Criminal Justice academy for the 18 week Basic Training Program.

"The turnaround you're looking at can be a year or more," says Brewer Public Safety Director Jason Moffitt.

With 3 uncertified recruits on the sidelines, Moffitt is taking a costly step to bring in a veteran officer who is certified and seasoned. The City is offering a $20,000 signing bonus for experienced officers, the largest incentive in the state.

"I can't afford to have a fourth inexperienced officer. I need someone who can hit the ground running," Moffitt says.

Moffitt says there's been interest and he expects to hire that officer within a few weeks. Westbrook has been offering $14,000 signing bonuses to experienced officers for five years now, and Chief Sean Lally says it has worked. He says officers from across the country have been lured to Westbrook, looking for a change.

"If we didn't have it we'd be in trouble," Lally says. "We've made 12 lateral hires... [and] kept our heads above water."

And progress is being made in training young recruits. The Maine Criminal Justice Academy last July graduated its largest class ever — 67 cadets — and plans to maximize its capacity next year to address the backlog. By law, officers hired in Maine have one year from the date of hire to complete the basic training.

In order to help fill 25 state trooper vacancies, the Maine State Police have added a new initiative to allow certified officers to remain in their home towns. In the past all new troopers could be assigned anywhere in the state.