Law enforcement advocacy groups estimate there are currently more than 100 vacant officer positions throughout the state of Maine, and that the pool of new applicants is small. The problem is even worse in small, rural departments where a job posting may only illicit a single response. Local departments are doing what they can to recruit, and retain, qualified officers.
It's the start of another day on the job for new patrolman Adam Oko of the Orono Police Department, as he does a quick inspection of his cruiser's operational systems.
The 22-year-old left a reserve officer post in Milo for his first full-time patrolman's position, and the town of Orono is happily paying for his training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. He’s also learning from more experience mentors in the department.
Like most patrol officers, Oko says he would have been happier with a higher starting pay. According to the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, most new officers in Maine earn between $16.50 and $20 per hour. Oko says low salaries may discourage some young people from entering the law enforcement profession, but that wasn't an issue for him.
"Obviously it's a factor to some extent because you have to be able to pay your bills and get by, but that's not the deciding factor, because if it was I'd be a lawyer or something like that to make a lot more money," Oko said. "But that's not where my heart is. It's not about the money. It's about doing something I enjoy and something that is going to give back to the community at the same time."
Finding candidates who have a passion for police work is no easy task, according to Orono Chief F. Josh Ewing.
"That's what we struggle with the most, finding the person who does have a work ethic," Ewing said.
Ewing says says Orono is fully staffed, but when there is an opening he routinely eliminates half of the candidates for a variety of reasons, including low psychological scores and failure to meet physical fitness qualifications.
At the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Executive Director Robert Schwartz says there are recruitment challenges statewide.
"Years ago, you used to get a hundred people or so for a position. Today you're lucky if you get ten or 12," Schwartz said. "By the time the backgrounds are done on people, you narrow that down pretty far."
In addition to salary issues, Schwartz says smaller police departments simply do not have specialized areas of investigation that may be of interest to some applicants, and a small roster of two or three patrol positions means that chances for advancement are limited. Schwartz says there’s also the emerging shift in public attitude toward police that are making national headlines.
"It is a thankless job at times. It can be very rewarding, but it's also a thankless job," Schwartz said. "It's almost one of those situations that you're darned if you do and darned if you don't.”
For smaller departments like Chief Dick LaHaye’s in Searsport, the loss of a single officer can be a challenge. When Searsport residents call the department, chances are pretty good that Lahaye’s voice will be the first voice they hear. He says his three person department sometimes receives only a single application when a vacancy occurs, and working conditions can change quickly.
"Back in 2009, there were three full-time police officers besides myself here, and all three police officers left within a two week period of time," LaHaye said. "That was kind of like a perfect storm, hopefully that will never ever happen again."
As incentives, some larger departments are offering signing bonuses as high as $10,000. In Washington County, Chief Deputy Mike Crabtree says the sheriff's department is matching vacation or sick time that new hires had accrued at their former position. The department is also reaching out to high school students who may have an interest in law enforcement.
Crabtree says that police agencies would be wise to consider the needs of officers’ spouses, who are moving to a new place with no social contacts.
"You know we have to keep in mind, what about their support systems, what about their family, we're out working, we're all working together, we're doing the job, but the family doesn't know anybody, they want to get back home," Crabtree explains.
Other departments are considering mergers in order to improve coverage.
In Gouldsboro, Tyler Dunbar who was named chief at the age of 23, says he and others are reviewing a voter referendum question that could result in the merger of the Gouldsboro department with neighboring Winter Harbor.
"Right now we're looking at a proposal in order to increase coverage, obviously up to 148 hours of police coverage per week," Dunbar said. "Currently Gouldsboro covers 80 to 100 hours per week, and Winter Harbor covers around 40 to 60 hours per week."
Just this afternoon, the Portland Police Department announced that with 16 vacancies, it has become the first department in Maine to hire its own in-house recruitment officer.