Amid an ongoing police shortage, Maine's safe reputation is proving to be a recruitment tool
Sergio Martins joined the Auburn Police Department in 2020 with his wife and young son in tow, looking for a slower pace of life and a safer job.
"Florida is getting more and more dangerous. I was involved in two serious incidents within a year... that took the life of a fellow officer and almost took my life on a separate occasion," Martins said.
Attracting police officers from other states — including Florida, Massachusetts, upstate New York and Rhode Island — is one of the strategies now used by Maine law enforcement agencies to fill gaps in the ranks.
"We've had a huge group of officers coming from other states over the last couple years. Last year we had 60 waivers," said Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Desjardins said 60 more officers will apply for waivers this year. He said the waiver process allows them to bypass the 18 week training program required of new officers in Maine, as long as their previous training meets the state's standards.
The Academy checks to see if the waiver applicant is listed in the National Decertification Index, a registry of certificate or license revocations for officer misconduct. A background check, polygraph, psychological evaluation, and firearms qualification review are also performed by the law enforcement agency recruiting the new hire.
The gaps in some departments are being driven by competition.
"Lewiston did the big pay hike...I lost 5 officers to Lewiston because of that pay hike," said Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen.
He said he's hired several officers from out of state and still his department is down 12 positions, primarily due to the wage hike for police officers in neighboring Lewiston, granted by city councilors in November. Moen said Auburn's city council is now poised to respond.
"The city council is very aware of the challenges that we're facing and they've agreed to open up the contracts and set a new competitive wage scale that will go into effect July 1 with a new budget," he said.
According to the Maine Municipal Association, the average base salary for a patrol officer in Maine is more than $56,000 a year, though patrol officers in cities can earn more than $62,000, while those in rural regions can make $51,000 a year. Those salaries put Maine at the bottom of New England states in terms of law enforcement compensation.
Lewiston's recent pay hike for patrol officers will make the starting base salary more than $60,000 a year.
And it's not just neighboring towns that have been affected by the Lewiston pay hike. Brunswick Police Chief Scott Stewart said it's getting the attention of police chiefs statewide who are struggling to bring their agencies to full capacity.
"This obviously sets a bar for the rest of us... trying to compete," Stewart said. "This is a great thing, but is it sustainable?"
Auburn police officer Sergio Martins said he was originally recruited by the Lewiston police department but he researched Auburn's police department and liked what he found. He said he has no regrets about his choice.
"I don't regret leaving Florida and coming here and starting over. It's a great city to work for and a great group of guys," Martins said. "It's challenging and rewarding at the same time."
It's humbling, Martins said, to be the low man on the totem pole again, but it's the lifestyle, culture of the department, and safer environment for his family that matter most.