PORTLAND, Maine — A bright red “ we’re hiring” advertisement comes flashing forward when the Portland Police Department’s website is opened.
The Maine State Police website has a “***now hiring***” line in red and also a crawler across the top of its site that states the hiring process is now open.
The state’s largest police forces are not alone in their search for qualified people to put on a uniform.
Law enforcement agencies across the state report they are having difficulty in finding applicants who want to become police officers and who can make it through the multistep hiring process.
“It’s an issue that is nationwide,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said recently. “It’s hard to recruit. We just went through 30 [applicants] and none were hired.”
The Forest City has six openings, according to Portland police Lt. Gary Rogers, and Bangor is “down by seven,” Police Chief Ron Gastia said Friday.
“I’ll be down by eight at the end of the month when someone else retires, and by the fall I may be down by as many as 10,” Gastia said. “By Dec. 31, 2013, there are an additional 21 people who could retire.”
Portland has about 10 officers who can retire at any point, Rogers said, and that only adds to the problem.
“It’s a continuing … issue for us,” he said.
The Maine State Police, which employs about 300 law enforcement officers, also struggles with recruiting, Stephen McCausland, Department of Public Safety spokesman, said Friday.
“It’s a continuing process, as it is with most agencies now,” he said. “We hire year-round and it’s a lengthy application process.”
State police are currently looking to hire more than 25 new people, said Melissa Weiner of the state police training unit.
“We’re averaging between 27 to 40 [openings],” and the number changes constantly, she said.
Statewide, there are about 2,250 full-time sworn law enforcement officers, according to the FBI’s 2010 Uniform Crime Reporting Program data.
“We’re always looking,” Rogers said. “We hire on a rolling basis and we’ll do it several times a year.”
The biggest issue, Rogers and Gastia say, is that applicants have a tough time getting through the application process, especially the criminal background checks.
“Twenty years ago it was much easier to find people who didn’t have a sullied past,” Gastia said.
What young recruits don’t comprehend is that “everything you do today could affect you tomorrow when you’re looking for a job,” Bangor’s police chief said.
When applicants are given a polygraph test, they are asked if they have broken the law, used drugs, driven intoxicated. Those disqualified by their answers “don’t understand why that would hold them back,” Gastia said.
Instead of being forthcoming, others have tried to lie about their past, he said.
“If you’ve been deceptive, tried to hide it or lied to us, we are going to find out and you are not going to get hired,” Gastia said. “If you come to us and tell us you never did drugs and then we find out you did, you’re done. If you are honest with us, we may be able to get past” the prior behavior.
The polygraph test “seems to be the biggest stumbling point,” Edwards said. “All we’re looking for is an honest, drug-free person. Lately, it seems like it’s a tall order.”
Others who apply feel a sense of entitlement and just figure they will be given the job without any effort on their part, Gastia and Rogers said.
Both cited the physical fitness test, which must be passed before recruits start training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, as an example. Men in their 20s must be able to do 29 push-ups, 38 sit-ups in one minute and run 1.5 miles in 12½ minutes. Women in their 20s must be able to do 15 push-ups, 32 sit-ups in one minute and complete the running in 15 minutes.
“We don’t keep it a secret,” Gastia said of the test’s requirements. “They know it in advance and they still go down there and can’t pass. This is what they say they want to do as a career and they haven’t prepared themselves. It speaks volumes.”
“It’s incredible how many people fail it,” Rogers said. So many people failed, “we’ve put out a video , showing people what our physical fitness test requires.”
Officers of the law must be at least 21 years old, but there is no age limit for new hires. Beginning salaries differ based on the law enforcement agency, with Portland starting at $34,923, state police at $36,754, Bangor at $35,027 and Presque Isle with a starting hourly rate of $14.
The base salary that Bangor offers is “for a brand new person just out of the academy,” Gastia said. “If they come in with a military background, associate’s degree, bachelor’s or master’s degree, not just in law enforcement but in any field,” or other qualifying experience, the starting salary is increased.
The number of people who apply also is down compared to years past, Edwards said.
“Years ago, 200 to 300 would come in to take a test, and now we get 30,” the sergeant said.
The same is true for smaller departments, such as the Presque Isle Police Department, said Deputy Chief Laurie Kelly, a 26-year veteran in the 15-officer department.
“When I first started here, we might get 30 or 40 applicants. Now we might get 10 or less,” she said. Another change is that “years ago, the people who got hired would stay and now they’re not. They’ll stay five or six years and then move on to other departments with better benefits.”
Sheriff Glenn Ross of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office said he recently hired one deputy for his staff of 30 full-time and 40 contract officers and had only a dozen applicants.
“It’s getting harder and harder … to attract people,” he said, adding, however, that those hired typically “have stayed on long-term. We’ve had very little turnover.”
The application process, which includes a physical exam, background check, polygraph, physical fitness and psychological tests and then a sit-down interview, is tough and designed to eliminate unqualified applicants, Gastia said.
“I’m looking for the best possible applicant we can find because those are the ones we want protecting our community,” the Bangor chief said. “We’re not going to take the borderline people.”