'An issue all over the place': Topsham grapples with police shortage

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TOPSHAM — The Police Department is looking for a few good recruits.

The department is four people shy of its full complement of officers, which prompted Police Chief Chris Lewis to approach the Board of Selectmen Thursday, Nov. 15, about incentives to attract more applicants.

Police shortages aren’t isolated just to Topsham, or even Maine, Maine Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Robert Schwartz said last week.

When fully staffed, Topsham Police’s full complement is 16 people, plus two reserve officers, Lewis said in an interview Nov. 6.

A destire to reduce overtime costs, and also expand law enforcement presence throughout town around the clock – addressing issues like traffic safety – prompted Town Meeting in May to authorize hiring two new officers.

Those two positions were filled in July, but the following month Officers Donald Cowles and Garrett Decker took jobs in Augusta and Brunswick, respectively.

Meanwhile, longtime Officer Troy Garrison had been out most of the year on medical leave. He retired Tuesday, following the Oct. 31 retirement of Detective Mark LaFountain, which left the department with four vacancies.

Officer William Collins is Topsham’s new detective, and the department tapped Officer Kerri Libby to fill his animal control/traffic officer role.

“Technically, that (makes) us down four positions on the road,” Lewis said. “So the challenge becomes trying to get someone into that position, and then shifting our workload around.”

In seeking new recruits, the department has attended job fairs for veterans and college students. But it’s been an uphill battle, the chief said, and three applicants for the open positions never showed up for their interviews.

“We’re still trying to advertise, trying to seek different avenues … to see where we’re missing, and what we can do to change our marketability,” he said.

But Topsham, along with other municipalities, faces an tight job market right now.

“There are so many agencies across the state that are hiring,” the chief said, noting that people can find an array of openings on the Maine Municipal Association and Maine Criminal Justice Academy websites; both listed more than 20 openings Tuesday.

“You can pick and choose where you want to go,” Lewis said. “You want to go to northern Maine, you want to go to southern Maine, you want to go to the Mid-Coast area; wherever you want to go, there’s somebody that’s hiring in that area.”

Some salaries start out at nearly $24 an hour. Topsham offers almost $21, although people certified with experience can be hired at a higher rate, and the pay increases with longevity, Lewis said.

Police contracts are up for negotiation next year, and Lewis said he hopes for consensus on an agreement that makes the department more competitive in recruitment and retainment.

Despite the challenges, “we’re not going to lower our standards; we’re going to maintain the status quo,” he said. “But we do want to increase our marketability, and how do we do that? This is a great town, this is a great area, we have great businesses, we have a thriving mall area.”

The bustling Topsham Fair Mall and surrounding roads place a high demand on services. Trying to maintain those services with fewer people has led to more overtime hours – Lewis couldn’t specify how many – and has made the department less proactive in dealing with some matters, the chief said.

“When you’re investigating a theft complaint and it’s taking you an hour or two,” you’re not going to have time to go out and work the traffic,” he said.

“Everybody here has been wearing multiple hats,” he added, “and really pulling together and working together and making sure that the shifts are filled, and making sure that the job is done … correctly, without losing that professionalism.”

Schwartz, a retired South Portland police chief, on Nov. 8 said police recruitment is “an issue all over the place,” particularly in the past couple years.

“The pool … used to be 100, 200 candidates when you advertised,” he said. “Now if you get 10 you’re lucky.”

And background checks can quickly whittle that number down. A drug charge at the age of 17 or 18 can prove detrimental when applying for a police job at 22, Schwartz said.

Recruitment is also down because law enforcement has been under scrutiny for the way it deals with minorities.

“Police are under fire now … and as a result of that, I think people are having second thoughts,” Schwartz said. 

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Topsham Police Chief Chris Lewis hopes to make his department more competitive in the job market amid a glut of police openings throughout Maine.

Departing Topsham officers

Topsham Police Detective Mark LaFountain and Officer Troy Garrison, two familiar faces in the area for decades, have retired in recent weeks.

LaFountain started with the Kennebunkport Police in 1990 as a summer officer, graduating from the Vermont Police Academy the following year. He brought his police work back to Maine in 1993, spending 13 years with the Brunswick Police before crossing the Androscoggin River to work in Topsham. 

“I thought it was just time,” the 52-year-old Topsham resident said Nov. 6, noting that he’d accrued enough years in the state retirement system to get his pension.

LaFountain’s next chapter includes serving as director of business development for a Skowhegan startup, Tardigrade Industries, which manufactures armored eye ware, and as a sales representative for the Riddell football equipment company – a nod to the coaching he’s done for the Mt. Ararat High football team.

“Try to stick to your ideals,” he recommended to anyone looking to join the police force. “If you’re coming in to help people, do that. There are going to plenty of obstacles … but stick to your convictions the best you can, and don’t take it personally. And do the best job that you can.”

Garrison started with the Topsham Fire Department in 1989, spending about 15 years with that agency. He became a part-time reserve officer and dispatcher with the Topsham Police in 1994 and rose to full-time dispatcher in 1996.

Garrison, who spent 20 years as a full-time patrol officer, underwent heart surgery in April.

“I just wore my last monitor now,” the results of which he was awaiting, he said Nov. 7. “Everything seems good now, but there comes a time when you’ve got to just look out for your health. … You know when it’s time.”

The 49-year-old Topsham resident does security work at Highland Green in Topsham and Oceanview in Falmouth.

An avid fisherman, Garrison is thinking about getting his fishing guide’s license, and also has an undisclosed venture approaching next spring.

The town has “been good to me right from the time I became an employee with them,” he said. “It’s been good … you’ve got friends all in the neighboring towns.”

Alex Lear

Mark LaFountain retired as a detective with the Topsham Police on Oct. 31.

Troy Garrison retired Tuesday after 20 years as a full-time Topsham Police patrol officer.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.