Call for help: Southern Maine police department jobs going vacant

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SOUTH PORTLAND — When Lt. Frank Clark joined the South Portland Police Department in the late 1980s, jobs on the force were in demand – one opening could easily attract more than 100 applicants.

In the decades since, Clark said he has watched interest decline dramatically.

Now, smaller pools fail to yield applicants worth hiring, open positions remain vacant longer, and officers already on the force must work longer hours, sometimes three or four overtime shifts a week.

With some departments also facing several retirements, they’re trying to modify their recruitment approach to attract more and better candidates.

Last April, the Police Department in South Portland – the fourth-largest city in the state – had an opening for a patrol officer; 12 people applied and only seven showed up to take the first written exam.

“It was unprecedented, actually,” Clark said last week. And with 16 of the department’s 54 sworn officers poised to retire, the low number of applicants presents a “potentially very critical” situation, he said.

Departments throughout southern Maine are experiencing the same thing.

In Falmouth, Police Chief Edward Tolan said his department has “absolutely” seen a drop in the number of job applicants.

Tolan remembered 1997, when Lt. John Kilbride was hired from an applicant pool of about 120. These days, an open position will usually draw 12-25 applicants, he said.

Likewise, in the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, “gone are the times when you had five positions and 300 applicants,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Monday.

Right now, the county law enforcement agency has one opening; two people have applied. At times when there have been several open positions, departments have occasionally found themselves “fighting over the same candidate,” Joyce said.

And in Brunswick, Lt. Tom Garrepy, who will take over as patrol commander at the end of the month, recalled when he was selected in the early 1990s from a pool of more than 200 applicants. In recent years, the department has hired about two people a year from a pool that rarely exceeds five candidates, he said.

Quality over quantity

Fewer applicants to choose from means a reduced likelihood of finding an ideal candidate. But that doesn’t mean departments necessarily lower their standards, Clark said.

Brunswick Police Cmdr. Mark Waltz said his department has not and will not compromise its standards for hiring because of the shortage of applicants.

“It isn’t that we can’t find quality,” he said. “It’s not having as much of a choice.”

Most applicants now come from Maine or New England – also a shift from past years, police said, when open positions would bring more applicants from across the country.

Tolan, who heads a department of 18 full-time officers, said about 80 percent of Falmouth’s applicants now come from Maine.

Candidates typically fall within four categories, he said:

• No experience with police work.

• “Reserves,” or people who “kind of know what it’s all about.”

• “Blue pins,” or those who’ve been trained in the state police academy.

• And students who are enrolled at the academy.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department is “hiring less than 3 percent of current candidates, (but) it is always about quality over quantity, (and) we are always going to wait until we get the right person.”

“The standards we have for new employees have never wavered,” Sauschuck said. “What concerns me (is) if we are leaving positions open for a time, it is stressful for other people.”

Discerning the deterrents that keep people from considering police work remains crucial in figuring out how to effectively combat the shortage.

‘Hard time to be a police officer’

The national discord between civilians and law enforcement undoubtedly plays a part in explaining why the numbers of aspiring officers may be so low.

Scrutiny is high, Topsham Police Chief Chris Lewis said, “because everything you do, you will be judged by your actions on and off duty.”

“It’s a hard time to be a police officer,” South Portland Officer Shane Stephenson said. He works anywhere from 12 to 34 overtime hours a week.

Stephenson, 31, who started with the South Portland department in 2009, when he was 23, said he has seen a clear shift in how the public perceives police.

“It’s completely different. You always have those people that are not willing to work with you. But just the regular, everyday person is (now) buying into this national fad that police aren’t there to help you,” Stephenson said. “Who really wants to be a police officer in this type of environment?”

Tolan, too, said while the life of an officer “has never been glamorous,” if “you look at what’s going on in the country for police officers, you’re targeted for doing your job.”

Compounding the shift in perception is the day-to-day rigor of the job and the competitive and demanding hiring process.

Sweetening the pot

Because fewer qualified people are applying, some departments are amping up their incentives or working to improve accessibility to the application process.

South Portland’s department is working with the city’s Civil Service Commission, for example, to streamline the department’s application process in an effort to make it easier and “more flexible,” Clark said.

Rather than traveling four times to take four different tests over a series of months – a process particularly difficult for out-of-state applicants – the department’s proposed process would consolidate some oral exams and the times to take them. The department would also offer the final test more than once a year.

Others, like the Brunswick Police Department, are offering monetary incentives to already certified officers who apply and are offered positions.

Last week, Brunswick announced it would award a $5,000 signing bonus to certified officers who are hired. Half would be awarded upon hiring, and the rest when officers complete their first year.

Waltz, the Brunswick commander, said hiring an officer who is already certified is the most immediate way to fight the shortage, because certified officers have already completed training at the police academy and are ready to serve after about three months of field training.

The bonus will hopefully render better results than a recruitment effort this year, when the department posted an opening for a certified officer and failed to receive a single application.

Departments around the state are competing for a finite pool of applicants, and the winners are usually the ones that can offer the most competitive benefits, Waltz said.

“No one goes into this field to get rich,” he said, “but a higher salary and better benefits might come down to why an officer chooses one department over the other.”

Even so, the salary offered can be a factor for many, including Stephenson, who is still paying off his college loans. But most departments don’t yet offer similar incentives.

Considering the limited resources that most departments have, and the expectation that successful candidates will have to work overtime, weekends and some holidays, the “national climate” really adds a limiting factor in terms of  “recruiting efforts,” South Portland Chief Ed Googins said. “It’s a reality we’re dealing with.”

“We cannot just one day snap our fingers and make all of that go away,” he said. “There are issues within our profession, which is a very noble and service-oriented profession, (but) bad things happen. We’re looking for individuals that are able to put up with that criticism.”

“This is not a job for the faint of heart,” Googins said. “You really need to be committed for what you sign up for.”

As for the job opening South Portland had in April, the department eventually found someone to hire. But it still has two openings that have not been filled.

Callie Ferguson, Alex Lear, Colin Ellis and David Harry contributed to this report. Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Falmouth Police Chief Edward Tolan said his department has “absolutely” seen a drop in the number of applicants for open positions. Law enforcement officials say public unrest, compounded by the expectation of working long hours and holidays, plays a part in why significantly fewer people apply. (Colin Ellis / The Forecaster)

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce: “Clearly we are not getting the (number of) applicants we used to. Gone are the times when you had five positions and 300 applicants.” (David Harry / The Forecaster)

Brunswick Police Lt. Tom Garrepy was hired in the early 1990s from a pool of more than 200 people. In recent years, the Brunswick Police Department has hired about two officers a year from a pool that rarely exceeds five applicants. (Callie Ferguson / The Forecaster)

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said that despite his department’s shortage of applicants, “The standards we have for new employees have never wavered. What concerns me (is) if we are leaving positions open for a time, it is stressful for other people.” (David Harry / The Forecaster)

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins: “There are issues within our profession, which is a very noble and service-oriented profession, (but) bad things happen. We’re looking for individuals that are able to put up with that criticism.” (Alex Acquisto / The Forecaster)

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.