TOPSHAM — With his department four people shy of its full complement of officers, Police Chief Chris Lewis is working with town officials on ways to make his agency more attractive to applicants.
For now, that includes $2,500 incentives to the department’s two newest officers, as authorized 4-1 by the Board of Selectmen on Nov. 15. The town will make the payments after Officers Kerri Libby and Mark McDonald, both hired in July, complete their six-month probation period in two months.
Officers who have just completed the academy have a full year’s probation after graduation.
The town budgeted $2,500 each in the current fiscal year spending plan for two new officers to attend the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. But since both McDonald and Libby – who together have more than 20 years of experience – had already graduated, the money remained unspent.
“These are existing funds, so I’m not asking for any more money other than what I already have,” the chief said.
Lewis called the payments an incentive for certified officers like Libby and McDonald, dubbed “blue pins.” He said he had told the officers of the incentives when they applied, but later learned he was unauthorized to do so.
“The confusion was on my part,” Lewis said Monday, explaining the idea was discussed during the fiscal year 2019 budget process but he did not bring it formally to the board, as he later found was required.
“Right now we’ve hit critical mass in the police department; we’re down four positions,” the chief told selectmen last week, adding that applicants for three interviews ended up being no-shows.
“So we’re really looking at what do we need to do to change the marketability of this Police Department,” Lewis said. “… And it’s not easy; everybody’s in the same boat, everybody’s grasping for straws and trying to do things differently.”
Neighboring agencies are heavily recruiting officers and promising them more money, better opportunities, and take-home cruisers, he explained, adding, “we’re fighting with that, because we’re starting to eat our own across the state.”
One department culling officers from another is “unfortunately becoming almost like an industry norm now,” he added.
“I need something, to make sure that we’re keeping the personnel that we have, and that we’re staying competitive,” Lewis said.
His department offers a starting hourly pay of nearly $21, while other agencies 20 miles away offer $4 more, he said.
The incentives are a temporary measure, and the chief plans to research other measures that can be taken as the fiscal year 2020 budget season approaches. He called a take-home cruiser “a huge perk,” which took first place in a survey he distributed to his staff to be answered anonymously, asking what they would like from their department.
Even with providing a cruiser, a new blue pin officer could still be wooed away by other communities, Selectman Ruth Lyons said, asking, “where does it end?”
Lewis acknowledged that anything new, whether it is more money or a cruiser, must be implemented in stages, in a financially responsible way.
The town will budget next for four new officers to attend the academy, Town Manager Rich Roedner said – money that could be available for incentives should any new hires be academy graduates.
Dave Douglass, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, was leery at the idea of the $2,500 bonus, which he considered a retroactive measure for the two newer officers; his was the sole vote against the incentives.
He suggested a stipulation that future hires agree to stay for a specified period, and have to pay back the $2,500 if they leave prematurely.
Otherwise, “this isn’t going to change that game; this is going to get them through the door,” Douglass said. “They’re going to continue to be sought-after individuals.”
Agreeing that something must be done, Lyons said, “I just don’t like the game. … I don’t have any idea where it’s going to end, and how much more it costs. … It doesn’t stop, as long as everybody’s playing the game.”
Topsham officials are exploring methods to attract and retain police officers, including a $2,500 bonus if they have already graduated from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.