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Maine State Troopers: Going Hungry While Protecting the Public

There was a time when the Maine State Police would see thousands of applicants for state trooper openings. These days, they might see a hundred. Those close to the ranks of the state police say pay might be one reason for the change. But they also point to societal factors, and to the stricter screens used to weed out the applicant pool.

Earlier this year, Jon Brown, a trooper from Piscataquis County, told members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that he sometimes takes road kill home to feed his family.

"Over the past couple of years my family have been recipients of food stamps," Trooper Brown said. "We receive medical care which is paid for by MaineCare. I am not proud of this, not at all."

Brown is married, a veteran with six children. His pay is about $37,000 a year, before taxes. His pay has been frozen since he joined the force in 2008. There will be modest increases in the new budget year that starts July 1, but Brown could make more as a municipal police officer, or by working for a federal law enforcement agency, such as the border patrol.

"People are now weighing, 'What's the best decision for my family?'" says Aaron Turcotte, president of the Maine State Troopers Association, the union that represents troopers. He says applicants are asking questions, not just about pay and benefits, but other factors as well.

"Do I want to work a job that requires me to work nights, weekends, holidays, miss children's birthdays, ballgames?" Turcotte says. "So there does come a point where, I think, younger people now are looking at, 'How do I spend more time with my family?'"

And that's led to recruitment problems within the state police. Col. Robert Williams, chief of the force, says society is changing and there are fewer men and women willing to make the sacrifices needed to be in law enforcement.

"A lot of people get a career where they make more money, and they work Monday through Friday, they go home and that's the end of it," he says. "And our people work - we need them to work - days, nights, weekends, holidays."

And Williams says a growing number of candidates are finding themselves ineligible to be a trooper. Conviction of most any crime, from drunk driving to marijuana use, is grounds for rejection.

"Today it is not uncommon to find people who have smoked it for four or five years continually," Col Williams says. "And then they ask, 'Why won't you hire me? I will stop.' And not only that - a lot of heavy drugs too."

Former State Police Chief Craig Poulin, who is now the executive director of the troopers association, says the extensive vetting process, which includes background checks, polygraphs, lengthy interviews and psychological testing, is screening out most of the applicant pool.

"You are lucky to get 15 or 20 or 30 people for three or four openings," Poulin says. "And if you consider the numbers that you are trying to hire, and the vetting process that is used, then obviously the smaller that pool gets it becomes much more of a challenge."

And Poulin says adding to the pressure on troopers is the fact that there are fewer of them than when he joined the force more than 30 years ago.

Col. Robert Williams acknowledges that even if there were enough qualified recruits, he would not be able to fill all of the vacancies in the force, due to funding shortages. With 13 new troopers added last month, there are still 27 vacant positions.

"The way state government works is we get money for salaries and we have money for headcount for salaries or positions, but we don't have any operating money," says Col. Willians. "We don't have the money to buy card, guns, bullets, vests, uniforms."

And Williams says as law enforcement becomes more complex, the force will need to find more troopers with specialized skills, training and education. And he predicts that the success of future efforts to attract qualified troopers will depend on a move toward better pay and working conditions.