BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor Police Department is understaffed and officers are pulling overtime to cover for vacancies because suitable applicants to wear the uniform are hard to find.
Bangor Police Chief Mark Hathaway said Friday his department, which should have 82 members, is short 10 officers. A spate of recent retirements of officers who joined the force in the 1980s has proved difficult to keep up with. Lt. Tom Reagan joined that list of recent retirees Friday. More are eligible to retire. About half a dozen of the department’s officers are on military deployment.
Bangor isn’t alone. The hiring problem has persisted for the past few years in departments across the state, including Portland and the Maine State Police. Officials with both forces say they’ve struggled to keep up with retirements, departures and military deployments. They are also seeking out new, young officers.
“We just can’t afford to have everybody retiring in these big clumps,” Bangor police Lt. Paul Edwards said during an interview Friday.
The department has been hiring new officers, but not at a rate fast enough to keep pace with departures.
The problem isn’t always that people aren’t applying to fill these vacant posts, it’s that they aren’t the right people. The department recently interviewed a dozen applicants for patrol positions, according to Hathaway, but only one turned out to be a potentially suitable candidate.
One stumbling block comes when applicants don’t reveal issues in their past with recreational drug use or criminal missteps. Those past indiscretions surface later on during background checks or required polygraph tests and result in the end of their eligibility.
“There’s just no room for that,” Edwards said.
Others might fall through the cracks during other parts of the screening — for example, not being able to meet the physical fitness standards laid out by departments. No applicant will be perfect, Edwards said, but any time an applicant tries to mislead or hide something from their potential employer, it’s a significant red flag.
In recent years, departments across the state have stepped up their recruitment efforts.
Bangor’s Police Department added the text “Now Hiring for Patrol Officer Positions” to the header of its Facebook page. It sends representatives to career fairs and other events across the state in hopes of drawing attention to the job opportunities. Starting salary is around $36,000. The department has tried to build close relationships with area colleges and universities in hopes of attracting criminal justice students.
Portland’s police department also has been promoting itself, visiting some of those same career fairs. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Friday that his department of 163 officers has five openings. While that rate is significantly lower than Bangor’s, the department still sees an average of 10 officers leave each year. Starting salary for an officer in Portland is $39,228.
“We still have a fair number of officers that could retire tomorrow,” he said, adding, “I think everybody’s in the same boat.”
Maine State Police has a cap of 341 officers of all ranks, but has been shy of that number for a long time, according to Lt. David Tripp, training and special services commander. He didn’t have a count of just how short they are of that number available Friday.
“Recruitment efforts have had to increase substantially over what they used to be,” Tripp said.
Each state police troop has two members who handle recruitment in those regions. A trooper’s starting salary is $36,753. But departments statewide are competing for a limited group of people interested in police work.
Tripp said that the state took in more than 1,200 applications per year in the 1990s, but today they get 200-450 during hiring cycles. During the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual to see 35-45 students at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. This year’s class is just 13 strong.
“I don’t think that there’s any silver bullet,” Tripp said.
Many departments in the state, especially large ones, are recruiting and accepting applications year round in order to ensure they draw as many applicants as possible.
One thing each department refuses to do is soften its hiring standards.
“We’re not going to sacrifice quality just to bring numbers,” Tripp said.
The most valuable recruiting tool is still the one-on-one approach, Hathaway said.
“Our most effective strategy is to get people who are interested in police work into a patrol car for ride-alongs,” allowing them to learn firsthand what the job entails — good and bad — he said.
Officer Jeremy Brock, 24, joined the Bangor Police Department two years ago. The Easton native decided to come to Bangor because it was small enough to allow him to work closely with community members while still having room to advance into specialties such as the bomb squad or special response team.
It’s a challenging career, but an exciting one, he said. He likes coming into work not knowing what he’ll be doing on a given day.
“It can be frustrating, it can wear you right out,” Brock said. “But it’s also incredibly rewarding.”