REGION — In recent years recruitment and retention for police departments in Maine and across the U.S. has become more and more of a challenge. In Franklin and Oxford counties, local forces have fared a little better than more urban communities. But the pandemic has stalled high school and college law enforcement education, as well as the residential certifications sessions held twice a year at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

The academy’s programming remained in limbo for months as public gathering and social distancing restrictions made it impossible to operate. Some classes were able to continue using Zoom and other virtual technology. But practical police training must be hands-on and as real to life as possible.

“Those issues made it difficult to continue through the pandemic,” explained the Academy’s Director, Rick Desjardin. “You can simulate some of it, but there are cases of fighting, of driving, shooting. It’s very hands-on, with a lot of practical training. You can simulate somewhat but you have to train in as real a life situation as possible.”

The class running last March had 58 students when it was suspended. After it resumed late in 2020 56 were able to graduate in December and start their careers. Cadets had to be COVID tested going in and coming out. Those cadets had been able to continue working, with some restrictions, during the interim in local departments, having completed a law enforcement pre-service course.

Desjardins said that some cadets did test positive when they returned and four individuals had to quarantine for two weeks at the start. The positive students were asymptomatic and recovered with little affect.

He anticipates that the next class of cadets will be called to the academy later this spring, with the program continuing to use some hands-on and some social distancing instruction. Both students and instructors will be tested regularly.

“We will get back to a similar cycle,” Desjardins said. “We have a clear backlog of agencies waiting to send prospective officers through the program.”

Instructors at the academy work in the law enforcement field already. Beyond active officers, others come in to teach class blocks, like advocates on topics like sexual assault and children’s issues and from the Maine attorney general’s office. First responders teaching sessions will have had opportunities to be vaccinated; Desjardins said he expects some instructors will still be waiting their turns.

“The backlog is difficult to judge. We have agencies who have requested slots but don’t necessarily have individuals ready to go,” Desjardins said. “We have about 230 requests for seats now.”

Recruits are required to undergo a polygraph test, a physical, a psychological evaluation, an agility test and pass the criminal background checks. Those are underway for the Spring 2020 program. Desjardins expects that as many as 100 applicants of the 230 requests will be ready to start, which will mean that at least 40 cadets will cement their spot on the waiting list for the fall class.

Oxford County

Of the 23 full-time deputies at the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, two are currently on military deployment and will be gone for at least a year. Several deputies have also tested positive for COVID-19 at various points during the pandemic, with transmission largely coming from jail inmates and arrestees, so, to say the least, staffing has been an ongoing issue at the OCSO.

Sheriff Christopher Wainwright said one deputy recently finished training at the academy, but that two more are expected to depart for the academy soon. A lot of training at the academy has been done virtually, but some is still hands-on, like teaching deputies how to shoot. Wainwright said the hands-on material is an imperative part of their training that gives officers the “practical skills they need.” He praised the academy for making the effort to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions, despite things being far from normal.

This far from normal setting has been easier on some than others. Wainwright said there has been an uptick in mental health related calls since the virus began making waves last March.

“The numbers are definitely up. It’s been very tough to find bed space for people who need it and finding proper treatment for people has been a challenge as well,” he said. “This virus has isolated a lot of people, too, which is just another strain on the public.”

COVID-19 has also led to trainings being cut back or suspended, making it difficult for deputies to receive additional instruction on how to handle mental health cases. Wainwright said OCSO has partnered with a new company, Dirigo Safety, where officers will get online training that Wainwright called “more updated than trainings done in the past.”

On the flip side, the staffing shortages, long hours, difficult calls and the virus itself have taken its toll on deputies.

“Every call they go on has an added layer of stress. They need to be thinking five to six steps ahead instead of two to three,” he said.

Mask-wearing has made it difficult to communicate with people, especially those with impaired hearing. In other situations, people have not complied with the mask mandate, but most do, Wainwright said. He also noted in general that most people deputies have dealt with have been a little more “on edge” than usual.

Many deputies have worked mandatory overtime on top of their standard 12-hour shifts and vacations have been canceled due to lack of staff. Another thing Wainwright stressed, was many of his deputies upon finishing their shifts, whether it be at the jail or on the road, still have everyday tasks to do in their personal lives, even if it’s something simple such as grocery shopping.

“It’s been tough, they haven’t really had a chance to put their guard down,” Wainwright said. “You can see the toll it’s taken on them.”

There’s a mix of younger and older people on the force, with roughly half the deputies in the age range of late 30s to early 50s and the other half in their mid to late 20s, according to Wainwright. The older, more experienced deputies have definitely helped out the younger ones, when needed, Wainwright said.

“We got a great group of people. Everyone who works here wants to work here,” he said.

In December, the OCSO team was given a reminder of how appreciated they are in the community, with operation “Thank The Blue.” Patrol and correctional officers were recognized, given gifts and the department received a sizeable cash donation. An above and beyond type of gesture that goes a long way for people enduring those long, physically and mentally exhausting days.

While cops locally were getting well deserved recognition, the same cannot be said for other departments countrywide. Protests, both violent and nonviolent, broke out in June after the shooting of George Floyd,  an unarmed African American who died after his neck was knelt on for more than eight minutes by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. The impact emotionally was felt by OCSO members, Wainwright says.

“Whenever your profession, whatever it may be, takes a big hit it does affect your psyche,” he said.

In June, a BLM protest took place in Bethel, the largest to occur in Oxford County. Prior to the event, the organizers of the protest contacted Wainwright and laid out how they wanted the protest to go. A few deputies were present at the rally and afterwards Wainwright got a call from the organizers saying thank you.

“I’m glad they felt comfortable reaching out to us,” Wainwright said.

As people everywhere have adjusted to the new normal under COVID-19, Wainwright is hoping to get back into more in-person training come springtime. In January all deputies got their first round of the COVID-19 vaccine and the second round is hopefully coming in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, Wainwright hopes, despite reducing traffic enforcement activities, that deputies are still clearly visible to those in the community. They are there to enforce the law, but also to help people out.

“We’re always here. We’re open 24/7. We do have resources here that can help get people pointed in the right direction,” he said.

Norway, Paris, Oxford

Norway’s police department enjoys a stable workforce, according to Chief Rob Federico, who went through the police academy in 1986. He has been with the department since 1996.

“We’re pretty proud that our department has considerable amount of experience in its ranks,” he said at a recent Oxford Hills Rotary Club presentation. “Folks often change careers but I don’t think we have anyone with less than five years’ experience, which is really something  [for Norway] to be proud of. The town supports its department, vocally and financially. But over the years things have changed a lot.”

When Federico graduated from MSCJA his education was for 12 weeks boot camp style. Today recruits attend a residential 18-week program and he expects that it will become more comprehensive in the future.

“More and more things are required of our police,” he said. “Drugs are more of a problem, domestic violence. COVID has created challenges. But our biggest challenge is mental illness.

“We still work to maintain peace but we have to find alternatives and solve issues creatively,” Federico said. “We do more, different things. Crisis intervention training is required for at least 20% of the staff, and dealing with mental illness and autistic behaviors as well; annual training is mandated at the state level.”

Rural police departments in Maine have largely escaped the drama and trauma that larger communities throughout the U.S. have had to deal with.

“It hasn’t had a lot of effect on us,” Federico said. “Maine is at the forefront of training with armed and unarmed encounters. Some larger departments have a harder time making changes than departments like ours. It’s easier for us to adapt. I can say that with my officers, it would be last resort to fire their weapon at anyone.

“We are supposed to be held to a higher standard, and I make that clear when I hire. They need to really think about every decision they make, and they need to think twice about it.”

The Norway department is fully staffed with nine full time officers, one full time civilian employee and two reserve officers who are also employed outside of law enforcement. Federico anticipates that the training bottleneck due to COVID-19 will eventually catch up with small towns like his.

Norway has had a few calls from businesses about people not wearing face coverings. The directive from state officials is for local officers to handle it similar to a rude customer in a convenience store. Store managers have the right to have any rude customer trespassed out of their store and that policy extends to masks.

There have been more issues at Walmart in Oxford. As in Norway, Oxford police, when called for assistance about mask issues, advise unhappy customers to either leave the premises or comply.

“There is always compliance once the police are there,” said Oxford Police Chief Michael Ward. “The vast majority of those complaints are dealt with and had a positive outcome. We have not arrested or summonsed anyone for violating the order. We have, however, issued some trespass warnings for people to leave a business and not to return until they fulfill the requirements for that particular business.”

Despite fewer people in public, bars, restaurants and the Oxford Casino being closed last spring, police calls in Oxford went up in 2020. Emergency calls, arrests and traffic violations have remained steady. In 2019 Oxford police handled 3,918 calls; in 2020 it was 4,002.

“Policing has changed for us,” Ward said. “We are social distancing with citizens who are coming to the station to file complaints. Instead of going to people’s residences to handle complaints we are now contacting them by phone when possible.”

“With the spread of COVID-19 and people sheltering in place you might think our calls for services would be down but that is not the case,” Ward said. “Traffic complaints (DUI, OAS, traffic related crashes) have stayed the same or increased.”

The Oxford Police Department consists of nine full time – two of which are open – and five reserve officers. Keeping the department fully staffed is an ongoing issue for Ward. One officer graduated from the police academy in December of 2019, and a recently hired reserve officer is ready to attend as soon as his name is called.

The Paris Police Department is comprised of eight full-time officers, a full-time administrative assistant and three reserve officers. Two officers are assigned as School Resource Officers: one at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and one at the Oxford Hills Middle School. Both interact with students at the Paris Elementary School.

“We have been at full staff since the onset of the pandemic, so recruitment and retention has not affected us to this point,” said Police Chief Mike Dailey. “But recruitment of new officers has been an issue, just not locally but nationwide. It’s been so since before the onset of COVID and is not a direct result of the academy cancelling or delaying new training sessions.”

In regard to training, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees sets the mandatory training requirements for officers which can vary year to year, he said. Typically, all of the mandatory training can be provided in an on-line learning environment so meeting the requirements has not been affected, he noted.

“Since 2018 officers have had to obtain training in such topics as responding to mental health crisis, critical thinking, and approach to substance abuse disorders to name a few,” Dailey said. “Alternative learning and advanced training in an in-person learning environment, however, has been affected by COVID and less training sessions are available. As a department we have even decreased our staff meetings in order to limit close contact with members of our own agency.”

Like the other chiefs interviewed, Dailey said the biggest challenge is the increase in mental health related calls.

“I believe to a certain extent this can be connected to COVID as fewer people are most likely receiving in-person services,”Daily said. “As far as domestics, we are investigating these incidents as we always have done, and our officers have continued making a custodial arrest of offenders where probable cause to do so exists.”

Situations that Paris police have responded to more often over the last year include family fights (incidents in which there have been disputes between family members that do not rise to the level of a domestic assault) and in juvenile complaints. Traffic accidents have remained relatively flat. Dailey said it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the underlying cause of some of these increases may be and whether or not the increases are directly related to COVID.

Franklin County

The Franklin County Sheriff Department currently employs 16 law enforcement officers and according to Lt. David Rackliffe, the rural Maine county faces the same staffing challenges that are seen nationwide.

“Staffing shortages has become the new normal over the past several years in law enforcement across the nation.  We have struggled with being able to find qualified and capable candidates,” Rackliffe wrote in an email. “I do not believe this to be in any way related to the pandemic.”

The Franklin County Sheriff Department does try to expose younger, local residents to law enforcement as a career by participating in events associated with the  Foster Career and Technical Education Center at the Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington. The vocational school now offers high school students a law enforcement program.

Farmington, Livermore, Jay

The Farmington Police Department has 10 full-time and one part-time officer, according to a Feb. 4 email from Interim Chief Shane Cote.

Jack Peck Jr. resigned last November to become assistant director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

The detective resigned in January, Cote wrote.

“The third position has been open for at least two years,” he noted. “We haven’t been fully staffed since 2009 for more than a few weeks at a time. It seems that whenever we hire for that position, either someone else leaves the agency or that person does not make it through probation. We are continually advertising for this opening and I am not sure when it will be filled.”

In Jay since the beginning of the year, the police department has been made up of eight full-time officers and six part-time officers Chief Richard Caton IV wrote in an email.

“We are currently full staff on full-time positions and can have up to 10 part-time officers,” he noted. “I will be looking to fill the other four part-time positions at some point.”

The Livermore Falls police department is staffed with five full-time officers and 11 reserve officers with one full-time and four reserve positions vacant, Chief Ernest Steward wrote in an email.

“I lost my full-time officer to the state police last week and the reserve positions have been vacant for about a year now,” he noted. “I presently have one applicant for the full-time position and one for a reserve position.”

All applicants must have completed Phase 2 training to even begin to work with a department and Phase 3 is a ride along orientation program at the beginning of field training, Steward continued.

Classes at the MCJA have been halted because of the coronavirus pandemic. The loss of that training opportunity is impacting some departments.

“Phase 2 must be done at MCJA and with the training delays prospects are put on hold,” Steward wrote.

“I currently have three full-time officers that need to go to the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program at the MCJA and will send them as soon as it opens and slots allow,” Caton noted.

Cote did not see the class schedule at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy as a hurdle to hiring future officers.

“There is not a lot of new types of training, however certain types of training have been pushed to the forefront in response to recent events,” he wrote.

“Training for police officers is always evolving,” Steward wrote. “We can do a lot of the training online now through JPMA (JPMA Staff Development Solutions LLC in Winthrop), both the MCJA mandated training as well as selective review training.”

“The Academy requires certain mandatory training topics yearly that are required for every law enforcement officer to take,” Caton noted. “Currently most training is online since most in-person training has been put on hold due to the pandemic.”

When additional mandatory training is required, the department is instructed and the training is completed, he continued.

Other mandates are impacting some departments.

“We are of course following the Governor’s public health mandates as well as trying to adapt to the recent mandate by the courts that limit the number of walk-in arraignments each department gets monthly,” Cote noted. “This has caused us to alter the way we process paperwork to make sure we are complying.”

Changes in the types of calls coming in are being seen in some departments.

Theft was the most common call seen in Farmington over the last year with mental health calls about the same as they have traditionally been, according to Cote.

Jay is still handling the same type of calls, those for domestic-, mental health- and drug-related crimes, Caton noted.

“We have seen more child and adult protective cases being reported,” he wrote.

In Livermore Falls since the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic issues are on the rise, according to Steward.

“Mental health and substance abuse are still a large part of our call volume and time consumption,” he wrote. “Often all these issues are linked together.”

Rackliffe said that the sheriff department has seen an increase in calls related to mental health this past year.

Police departments in Farmington, Jay and Livermore Falls haven’t received many calls regarding wearing face masks in public. If the call relates to an individual refusing to wear a mask at a business and won’t leave, it is treated as a trespassing complaint.

If the call relates to a business, the Attorney General’s Office has made us aware they are looking for voluntary compliance, Steward wrote. The offending business is informed of the current State Mandate and possible consequences, ne noted.

Rackliffe said that mask mandates and social distancing policies have more so impacted the way in which officers perform their job.

“We certainly have modified the way we do business on a day to day basis. Some of those changes have been to require officers to wear masks when dealing with the public,” he wrote. “We have also changed the way we do our annual training, which is normally done all at once for the entire agency. We now do that training one shift at a time to minimize the number of people in the office at any one time.”

Events nationally have affected some departments more than others.

They have not really affected the morale of our officers because we get so much support locally, Cote noted.

“I am sure that if we experienced the riots and protests that have taken place in other parts of the country that we might see a drop in morale,” he wrote.

Rackliffe expressed a similar sentiment of national events having minimal effects on the sheriff department’s performance.

“I believe our staff is committed to serving and protecting the residents and visitors of Franklin County regardless of political atmospheres,” he said.

Events nationally have impacted the Jay police officers.

“These events have discouraged officers to want to stay in this profession,” Caton wrote. “I have seen many officer’s leave this profession or go and retire and get out of law enforcement when years ago you would see officers put 30-40 years of service in. Now they are leaving as soon as they get to retirement age, 20-25 years and doing something different.”

What is going on nationally is noticed by the officers in Livermore Falls Steward noted, “but locally many citizens have gone out of their way to let us know that we are appreciated and needed.”


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