BANGOR, Maine — For the fifth straight year in Ron Gastia’s five-year tenure as Bangor police chief, the department’s thin blue line is a little thinner.
And for the second straight year, the Bangor Police Department’s budget has decreased — about 0.06 percent or $4,000 to a total fiscal year 2013 budget request of $7,080,546.
“My operational budget didn’t change much. What changed was my personnel,” said Gastia after making a budget presentation to the Bangor City Council on Thursday evening. “It was a short time ago when we were at full strength. It only lasted a very short period of time. With the exception of that one little period, we’ve been down since I’ve been employed with the Bangor Police Department and I’ve been in here 29 years now.”
On paper, Bangor is currently at 91 percent when it comes to the staffing level for authorized, sworn officers.
“And we have some people out on extended leave due to injury or something, and some people on military leave, so I’m down even more, and now we’re coming up on prime vacation time,” he added, “On any given week I may be down 12, 13 people.”
Due to the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, Gastia can’t restrict the number of officers who can take the same weeks of vacation.
That’s forcing the chief to get creative in order to come up with ways to shift personnel to cover the gaps.
“One way or another, we’ll find ways to fill those holes and put people on the street,” said Gastia, who briefed councilors on one of those ways.
“We’re looking at hiring a civilian to supervise dispatchers and free up the sergeant to be available for patrol duty.”
Other ways include the installation of the new Coplogic online incident reporting system, which will handle smaller crime reports and free officers up to work on more serious crimes.
“Oh, I am scrimping and scraping and looking at everything in ways to remove burden from patrol officers, including taking calls not only over the Internet, but over the phone by civilians to free our officers for the higher-priority crimes,” Gastia said. “And we’ll also have to pay some overtime.”
While the rate of attrition for the Bangor Police Department isn’t unusual — Gastia said many of the career officers hired during a bumper crop year in 1987 are starting to retire — the dearth of qualified applicants who can make the grade is surprising.
“We’re losing people at the high end and bringing people in to replace them at the low end,” Gastia said. “But we’ve seen for a number of years the quality of applicant decreasing.
“We’ve actually seen an increase in the number of people going to college for criminal justice, and schools are adding programs, but we’re not seeing that translate into more qualified applicants.”
Gastia said his department has high standards that he’s not willing to compromise just to fill an open position.
“We don’t fill positions just because we have open positions,” he said. “We try to take the best of the best. If we can’t get that, we don’t want to take second best because hiring the wrong person could cost a lot more in the long run than leaving that position open.”
Besides applicants showing up for interviews in T-shirts and slouching in their chairs, Gastia says many applicants’ recent backgrounds wave red flags.
“We’re not finding a whole huge numbers of applicants who make good, sound decisions,” he said. “A lot of applicants are learning they’re not bulletproof. We do background checks, polygraphs, interviews, and … I don’t need young, wild and foolish.”
What he does need is professionalism, strong work ethic and integrity.
“Give me those things and everything else falls into place,” he said.
As for the budget, Gastia is confident that the councilors will support his department budget.
“I’m not going to say they’re not going to come back to us, but I think they really do understand the serious nature of the problem we’re experiencing with our staffing, so I’m very optimistic,” he said.