AUGUSTA — From small towns to Portland, from sheriff's departments to the Maine State Police, there used to be a long line of applicants to be police officers. Not any more, and oftentimes law enforcement agencies are in competition for officers.
“A lot of the younger people today do not want to work nights, weekends and holidays,” Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, said. “They want to work Monday through Friday from nine to five, and they are able to find comparable jobs to do that. There have been studies that have shown they are willing to take a cut in pay to do that.”
Base pay for a trooper is just under $37,000, but a state trooper can start higher than that based on previous law enforcement or military experience. That is a little above the approximate $35,000 a year base salary for the Portland and Bangor departments.
He said with the increase in the military in recent years, it was hoped some of the recruitment issues would be eased by veterans. He said that has not happened.
“We had two or three candidates recently that we thought would make very good troopers, but they backed out at the last minute saying they did not want the pressure of the job," Williams said.
He said a lot of recruits fail the physical standards. For example, a male candidate in their 20s must be able run 1.5 miles in less than 12.5 minutes; a woman candidate must complete the run in less than 15 minutes.
“There are other tests like the polygraph and a psychological test that also catch a lot of people that want to be police officers but shouldn’t be," Williams said. He said a significant number of applicants also fail the criminal background check.
Caribou police Chief Mike Gahagan, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said all law enforcement agencies have been faced with the changing attitudes of society. He said working a job that requires around-the-clock coverage is not for everybody.
“When I started 39 years ago, it was just part of the job,” he said. “There are people today that do not want to work shifts; they want to spend time with their families.”
Gahagan said pay and schedules are an issue with smaller departments like his not being able to match the pay of the larger departments. He said in Aroostook County he has also seen local police officers move to the state or to federal agencies.
“In the last five years I have lost three officers to Customs and Border Patrol,” he said, “I can’t blame them. They make more, and the work schedules are better.”
Gahagan said he has heard from some chiefs across the state that they have been able to find recruits to fill vacancies, while others have had vacancies a lot longer than they wanted.
“When I started, I might come in a half-hour earlier to work on something or stay an hour later to finish up a report,” he said, “but now, when a shift is over, they are out the door.”
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said he has heard mixed reports from other sheriffs. He said they range from Washington County, which ended a contract in June with Lubec to provide coverage because of a shortage of deputies, to his agency, which has not had recruitment problems.
“That’s not because we are at the top of the pay scale; we are not," he said. "We are about in the middle.”
Ross said there are other sheriffs who also report a pretty stable workforce and no delays in filling a vacancy when one does occur. He said there have been fewer applicants when he has had a vacancy, but always enough to assure a good choice.
Gahagan said police agencies are responding to the shortage of recruits with recruitment videos and changing the way they operate.
“I have a motorcycle patrol and a four-wheeler patrol," he said. “Some like that better than driving around in a patrol car checking on doors.”