Cadets participate in a sit-up competition at Central Maine Community College during a recent criminal justice job fair.

Maine police departments are hiring, and a new local program is training aspiring police officers to cope with today’s new reality.

AUBURN — A few weeks before graduation, Central Maine Community College held a criminal justice job fair.

Police department staff from all over Maine were there looking to hire: Brunswick, Saco, Freeport, Lewiston, Portland, Westbrook, South Portland, Camden and even the Maine State Police.

Also, sheriffs’ offices from Cumberland, Androscoggin and Knox counties, the Maine Judicial Marshals, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Maine Marine Patrol and the Maine Warden Service.

“Everybody’s hiring,” said Camden Police Department Officer Chris Hansen as he manned his booth. “Nationally we’re having a hard time finding good candidates, the way police are perceived on the media right now.”

Police departments are having a difficult time hiring due to the pay, the hours, the stress and images on national news. On Wednesday in Chicago a vehicle pulled up alongside investigating officers and fired, shooting  two officers in what’s believed to be a targeted attack. And there are the images of police shooting people they’re arresting.

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“One bad apple can ruin the whole thing,” Hansen said. “We’re trying to reach out to people and let them know it’s not that way everywhere. I came from a department in Rhode Island. And it was like that. Now I’m here in Camden. I can tell you right now I trust everybody I work with.”

Community policing isn’t something his department and others in Maine just talk about. “It’s something we do,” he said. “Maine as a whole is a great state to work in.”

The job has gotten tougher though.

“There’s Monday morning quarterbacking going on,” said Lewiston Deputy Chief Adam Higgins. “How would you like to work every day with a camera on you, with the media ridiculing officers’ every move?”

And then there are the thugs targeting police officers. “That stuff wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” Higgins said.

Hansen was familiar with CMCC’s new, third-year program that started this year — Advanced Certificate of Police Operations — to help provide better training to future cops.

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“It’s a great program,” Hansen said, adding it screens out those who aren’t the best fit for the job. Some people want to be police officers “to hide behind this instead of using this as a beacon of hope,” Hansen said pointing to his badge.

Getting ready mentally to protect and serve

Matt Tifft, chairman of the college’s Criminal Justice Department, is the instructor. This year there are 120 students in the two-year criminal justice program, nine students in his new, third-year program.

Tifft, 37, grew up in Buckfield, graduated from Buckfield High School and then the University of Southern Maine. He worked for Auburn Police Department and the Androscoggin Sheriff’s Office.

The third-year program is designed to bridge academic classes with the real world of policing. It provides more training in verbal skills to de-escalate situations, mental readiness and stressers, how to physically take someone down safely who’s resisting arrest, physical fitness, defensive skills and how to use deadly force — “certain things you can’t train enough,” Tifft said.

Across the nation, there’s not only a need for more police, but better-trained officers, Tifft said.

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“Society today expects a different kind of police officer than it did 10 years ago,” Tifft said. “The days of us thumping somebody and dragging them off to jail are gone.”

Good policing requires analytical, critical thinking, being sensitive, open minded and wearing different hats. Policing needs to be a three-tiered approach that involves social work, educating community members on what the laws are, and law enforcement.

While the job requirements are high, the pay isn’t. Most police departments in Maine start at $15 to $20 an hour. Starting officers can expect to make $35,000 to $45,000 a year. Overtime pay raises those annual incomes.

Lewiston’s Higgins agrees the skills needed for policing have increased. “Our officers are very well trained. We come up with a lot of creative ways to do training.” But it’s a constant budget challenge, he said.

This fall the third-year CMCC program started with 12 students. Three dropped out. The program is designed to separate those who want to be officers from those “who are going to last out there.”

Tifft has seen his police colleagues develop post-traumatic syndrome disorder from what they’ve experienced. “I’ve had friends get heart attacks. Problems weren’t identified early, and turned into bigger problems,” he said. “I want to make sure these guys are safe: physically, mentally. In class we talk about wellness.”

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Using deadly force: the gray area

Part of the training is on when to use force and deadly force. “It’s not black and white,” said Tifft, but one guiding principle is when the officer or others are in danger.

If an officer stops a car, the person is suicidal and gets out of the car pulling out a rifle, “would you shoot him dead?” Tifft asked. “You’re justified. But does that mean it’s right?” It’s hard to answer without knowing the whole scenario, he answered his own question.

Sometimes what’s caught on camera doesn’t show the whole story, he said, adding when he was an Auburn cop, someone attacked him with a sword. He could have fired, but did not. But by the time the attacker was brought to jail, “it wasn’t pretty,” Tifft said.

Students in his third-year class said that in Maine police deal with less community tensions than other states, but Tifft said “a Ferguson” could happen here any day. “All it takes is one bad incident captured on a camera.”

(In 2014, teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, sparking community outrage. A Justice Department investigation following the incident revealed systemic racial bias within the police department.)

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CMCC students said they’re being prepared for better handling and de-escalating scenes involving suspected criminals and bystanders, often with cellphones recording the incident. “We’re seeing it out there,” said Dylan Morin. “We have gone through training to help us deal with situations like that.”

Across the country, there are some bad cops. “Police departments recruit from the human race. Sometimes departments get saddled with people who do not belong in our ranks,” said Sgt. Tim Cotton of the Bangor Police Department.

When an officer reveals him or herself as a bad officer, “we need to to weed them out,” said Cotton, who is the overseer of the Bangor Police Department’s often humorous Facebook page. Police departments need to build goodwill in their communities, he said.

Tifft blames both the media and police for negative public perceptions.

“When an incident is captured on camera, the media puts it out without getting the full story. You get that incident without context — sometimes perceptions that aren’t the reality. The public is quick to judge and doesn’t understand what police officers are expected to do.”

Police agencies everywhere need to do more community education, he said.

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Tifft said he believes many Maine police departments, including Lewiston and Auburn, do a good job with outreach, including holding citizen police academies and hosting community talks and activities.

Lewiston Police Department has a community service department that helps officers get to know the community, for instance, while Bangor PD’s funny “Duck of Justice” mascot helps connect with people.

Those kinds of efforts are not common everywhere, Tifft said.

“At the national level, I don’t think that happens.”

Matthew Tifft, chairman of the criminal justice program at Central Maine Community Colleges, talks about police training during a recent criminal justice job fair. A number of police agencies are looking to hire as the job becomes more challenging.

Austin Couture, who is planning to become a police officer after he graduates Thursday, performs the “body drag” on a 200-pound dummy during a criminal justice job fair at Central Maine Community College. Police agencies are looking to hire as the job has grown more demanding.

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David Morin of Auburn pushes a vehicle during police training at a recent criminal justice job fair at Central Maine Community College. Morin plans to become a police officer after he graduates on Thursday.

Bethany Nyberg does an army crawl as part of an obstacle course during a recent criminal justice job fair at Central Maine Community College. 

Lewiston Police Officer Ken Strout is greeted by first-grade students at Longley Elementary School in 2016. Community outreach is an important part of policing today, experts say.

Austin Couture breaches a barricade at the start of an obstacle course held at Central Maine Community College recently.

Third year Central Maine Community College police student Austin Couture of Jay leads his class in stretches before drilling.

Sabrina Poulin climbs through a “window” in an obstacle course during a police job fair held on the Central Maine Community College campus recently.


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