BANGOR, Maine — The first-floor office of Sgt. John Roach overlooks the Bangor Police Department’s dispatch center. If he keeps the door open, he can hear every call that comes in. Chances are he’s heard those calls many times before.
Upstairs in the same building, Lt. Tim Reid leads the department’s criminal investigative division. For about a decade, he has managed the city’s biggest investigations, including homicides. There is little he hasn’t seen.
If either had called it quits when they were first eligible, they would be entering their 12th year of retirement.
Instead, Reid stayed and became the department’s top detective.
“You can’t really train or teach what he brings,” Chief Ron Gastia said. “I can’t replace him.”
Said Reid, who turns 57 Saturday: “I love my job. It’s something I always wanted to do since high school.”
Roach stayed too, and now heads the department’s parking division — a more valuable role than most would assume, according to Gastia — and also is the resident technology and communications guru.
He passed up retirement initially because he had two kids in college.
“What else would I do?” Roach, also 57, said.
Bangor’s two most senior officers, who started on the same day in 1979, are among 28 who are either already eligible for retirement or will become eligible by Jan. 1, 2014.
Officers hired before 2001 can retire after 25 years of service and draw a pension equal to half of the average of their three highest annual salaries. Roach and Reid are the only Bangor officers left who fall under the department’s old system, which allows them to collect their pensions after only 20 years.
Bottom line: Nearly one-third of the department’s 83 officers may need to be replaced in the next three years.
“Even if only half of them leave, that’s a huge number for a department like ours,” Gastia said. “The people we could lose have a ton of experience, not just in their job but of the city.”
The phenomenon is illustrative both of the public safety industry, which has lost some luster in terms of a career path attribution according to Gastia, and of the entire work force in one of the oldest states in the country.
Robert Schwartz, former police chief in South Portland and now the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he sympathizes with Bangor’s plight.
“I always remember looking at my list [of officers] and thinking that the number who were eligible to retire would scare people,” he said. “Luckily, some don’t always leave when they are immediately eligible.”
Indeed, like Reid and Roach, not all of the eligible Bangor officers will retire, but Gastia said he has confirmation that at least a dozen — maybe more — plan to call it quits in the next two years. For Bangor’s chief, the departures create both a daunting hurdle and a unique opportunity.
On one hand, he’ll lose decades of institutional knowledge, but on the other, he’ll have a rare opportunity to shape the department for the next generation. Gastia will not only get to hire new officers, he’ll also get to promote existing officers to sergeant, lieutenant or captain.
“It’s a great time for people looking for an opportunity to advance,” he said.
Changing of the guard
The Bangor Police Department was roughly the same size in 1979, when Reid and Roach were sworn in, as it is today.
That’s probably where the similarities end.
“There are generational differences, no question,” Reid said. “I think back then there was more loyalty to the force … to the team. It’s more individualized now.”
Roach, a military policeman prior to his career in Bangor, said when he first took the job, he was on call 24 hours a day.
“Officers today, they work 40 hours a week, go home and say, ‘Don’t bother me,’” he said.
Roach doesn’t blame the new officers. He called them a good group of kids. They are just different.The generation of officers who started their careers in the 1970s and ’80s represent a group who felt they were called to duty. Gastia said that’s what he’s looking for in new hires and that is his challenge.
“I’ve never been at a point where I didn’t want to come to work,” said Gastia, 53, who began his career in 1982. “That’s what I want for my officers — I want this to be a career, not a job for them.”
But with the rise in drug-related offenses and mental health calls, the profession is not as glamorous as it once was, Gastia believes, so it’s not as simple as it sounds to hire qualified officers.
When eight positions were waiting to be filled last year, the chief brought in 40 candidates for interviews. None was hired.
“Nobody measured up,” the chief said.
Gastia said police work has become a more professional job. A lot more education and training are required now than when he and others started. That benefits the next generation.
“Everything is much more technical now. Everything is computerized,” Reid said.
Hunches and gut instincts have given way to forensics and DNA.
And police work is more by the book.
Roach said that 30 years ago he could respond to something like a bar fight and defuse the situation by himself.
“You might be the only guy in there, so you look for the biggest guy and take his legs out. You don’t wait for backup,” he said. “That’s when you could get away with busting a knee because you had to.”
Now, he and the department would be sued.
Beyond run-of-the-mill bar fights, crime has increased in Bangor, although not as much as one might expect. Property crimes such as theft, burglary and robbery have jumped the most. The chief has pointed to three methadone clinics, a growing sex offender population and the city’s status as a service center for a huge geographic region as reasons for the crime spikes. In the last two years, the economy hasn’t helped.
Perhaps more than anything, mental health calls have altered the department’s priorities. In November alone, the number widely exceeded all other calls. Reid said that, since the state shut down mental institutions years ago, that population is on the streets every day.
On the subject of drugs, Roach said he used to deal with drunks or marijuana users. Now it’s powerful prescriptions and methamphetamine. Addicts are more violent, more brazen. The increase in property crimes is directly related to the rise in drug use. Criminals aren’t afraid or respectful of cops’ authority in the same way.These changes have caused veteran officers to adapt, and the department has had to adapt to new economic realities.
Rebuilding a department
Schwartz said bigger communities like Portland, Lewiston and Bangor often are able to absorb the loss of retirees.
“A small department could be devastated by the loss of two officers,” he said.
In some ways economics has also helped Bangor.
Departments went away from 20-year retirements and instituted 25-year retirements, which means most officers are working well into their 50s. But if they have a lot of vacation time built up and good benefits, “it’s hard to walk away from that,” Schwartz said.
Most municipal employees are members of the Maine State Retirement System and can draw from that at a certain point. If they can do that and still work, it’s like getting two paychecks.
“If everybody retired that could, there would be a hell of a problem,” Schwartz said. “I put up with it for years; it always seemed to work out.”
Officers hired after 2001 don’t have a traditional pension. They pay into the equivalent of a 401(k) retirement account, but don’t need to stay a set period of time to draw from it.
In some ways, Gastia believes, he’s lucky. His department is not a stepping stone like some other, smaller departments. Generally, if people leave Bangor, they go either to the Maine State Police or to a federal law enforcement job.
Older officers stay put out of financial necessity or because they can’t imagine doing anything else. For today’s generation, it’s not uncommon to have multiple professions in the course of a lifetime.
“Obviously I would prefer to have senior officers mentoring younger ones. What we’re going to have is a young department teaching a younger department,” Gastia said.
Still, whether his older officers leave next year or three years from now, he needs to plan ahead. The time between when a new officer is hired and when that officer becomes “independent” is about one year.
Just as officers have changed the way they do their jobs, Gastia has said, his department needs to change the way it does business, but he doesn’t know how that will happen given the budget realities. Sometime after the first of the year, an outside consultant is set to review the department inside and out to look for ways to improve efficiency. Gastia could lose personnel.
Will the public notice the changes?
“It’s my job to ensure that they don’t notice,” the chief said.
But there will be changes, and what the department looks like now may not be what it looks like in 10 years.
“John and I are 30-year veterans; I don’t think you will see that as much,” Reid said.
So, when will they retire?
“I take it year to year,” Reid said.
“More like month to month,” said Roach.
Bangor Police Department:
Total officers: 83
Number eligible for retirement in next three years: 28
Pay range for patrol officer: $35,027 to $46,207
Pay range for detectives: same as patrol, plus 3 percent of top patrol scale
Pay range for sergeants: $45,739 to $56,430
Pay range for lieutenants: $59,955 to $66,622
Pay range for deputy chief: $57,822 to $77,680
Pay range for chief: $69,534 to $93,405
Benefits: Vacation; sick time; training; uniforms; health insurance, 75-80 percent paid by employer, remainder paid by employee.
Retirement plan: 6.5 percent of salary with 10 percent contribution from city. Not eligible for Social Security