December 16, 2018
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What other departments can learn from Portland’s recruiting success

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Assistant Portland Police Chief Vernon Malloch

Police departments statewide are struggling to fill their ranks. Portland welcomed 12 new officers last week. While other, especially rural, departments may not be able to replicate what Portland did, the state’s largest city can offer some lessons for other communities.

Last week, the Portland Police Department welcomed 12 new officers to its ranks. The city, like others around the country, has struggled for years to fill positions, with 20 vacancies earlier this year.

This city made recruiting police officers a priority.

In January, the city assigned a patrol officer to work full time as a recruitment officer. The officer has now returned to her patrol duties. The officer used social media to attract applicants and let them know more about Portland.

A couple of months later, the police department said it would no longer automatically disqualify candidates who have used marijuana within the previous five years. This wasn’t an acceptance of ongoing marijuana use but a recognition that the ban was disqualifying recruits who otherwise would be good candidates. Portland residents voted to legalize recreational use of the drug in 2013, and a similar referendum was approved statewide in 2016.

The department also offered $10,000 signing bonuses for those who join the police force or its dispatch department. The payments are made over time, with the final installment coming after two years. City police officers and staff who refer someone who is hired by the police department got $3,000 bonuses.

The most important thing the city did for potential recruits, Assistant Police Chief Vernon Malloch said, was to keep them updated on their applications. The process is long, involving written exams, physical exams, psychological testing, background checks and other steps. Potential recruits can easily lose interest if they feel they are being ignored or are no longer being considered for a job, so sustained contact is essential.

The department also worked closely with potential recruits on local schools, housing options, jobs for spouses and other information that would help attract candidates to the area.

The department still has five open vacant position, so the work is not done, but the focused, sustained attention on recruiting paid quick dividends in Portland.

A shortage of police and other first responders is a problem not just for Portland or Maine but the country in general. Nearly four in five departments nationally reported that a shortage of qualified candidates has made filling vacancies difficult, a 2010 RAND study found. The demands of the job — weekend and night shifts, the inherent dangers of police work — and relatively low pay compared to many private-sector jobs dissuade many young people from police work.

There are currently 33 job listings on the state’s Criminal Justice Academy jobs website. Some departments are seeking multiple officers, and some postings have been online for more than a year.

Although many Maine communities are very different from Portland, its experience shows that gaining new recruits takes a focused approach and commitment.

At the same time, state policymakers can help make first responder jobs more attractive, especially at a time of low unemployment like this. Police officers, firemen and EMTs are asked to provide mental health, substance abuse and counseling services. They are “compassionate people who really want to help,” as Malloch puts it.

But lack of state support, financial and otherwise, for substance use treatment, mental health services and family supports makes the jobs of first responders more difficult and demanding.

Focused recruiting efforts like Portland’s will help, but if lawmakers want to make sure Maine’s police departments have the officers they need, they should redouble their work to provide better access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

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