Law enforcement agencies in the midcoast and Washington County have made news recently because they’re having an increasingly hard time finding qualified candidates to fill vacancies. The same goes for police forces in the state’s largest cities and throughout much of the country: A shrinking pool of candidates have made recruitment more difficult than in the past.
“Law enforcement across the board have for some time seen a decline in people applying for positions,” Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck said.
There are several factors that have led to the recruitment difficulties departments face, including federal jobs created by the war on terror, military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, economic pressures facing millennials saddled with mounting debt and higher demands placed on prospective officers, according to a 2010 RAND study.
Much of what is known about the recruitment troubles, however, is largely anecdotal.
Several law enforcement officials, such as Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, have pointed to the national anti-police sentiment over police-involved killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York as a factor that has made police work less attractive.
Others, such as Sauschuck, doubt the furor has significantly hampered recruitment efforts, pointing to changing work preferences and the grinding lifestyle of the profession as more likely factors.
Although a lack of data makes it hard to say with any certainty what factors are responsible for the trend, law enforcement officials agree police work is less attractive today.
Nearly four in five departments nationally reported that a shortage of qualified candidates has made filling vacancies difficult, according to the RAND study. The Bangor Police Department is among those seeing fewer people line up to join the force.
Bangor police are in the process of hiring for five vacancies, and the openings have attracted 30 candidates, said Bangor police Lt. Bob Bishop. A decade earlier, Bishop said, these vacancies would have attracted as many as two or three times the number of candidates.
“When I first started in law enforcement, you’d see hundreds of applicants for openings. It was difficult to get a job. But those days are gone,” Bishop said.
There are more than 40 vacant law enforcement and public safety positions across Maine advertised with the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, some of which have been open since last spring.
Bishop said many potential candidates interested in law enforcement work are drawn to other departments within the state and nation that offer higher pay. Starting pay for a Bangor police officer with a high school education and no prior experience is about $35,000 per year; in Portland, starting pay is about $41,000.
The average pay for a police or sheriff’s patrol officer in Maine is $43,000 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest in New England. Nationally, the average pay for police or sheriff’s patrol officers is $59,560.
For millennials who are more highly educated and debt-saddled than previous generations, a career in law enforcement isn’t as financially attractive as they face pressure to find well-paying jobs to pay off college debt. That pressure is strong for Maine college graduates who have the sixth highest debt burden in the nation.
While millennials are under financial strain because of student debt, their higher education attainment makes them more attractive to non-police employers, meaning police departments face growing competition to woo them, the RAND study noted.
Growth in national security
Much of the difficulty in finding candidates to fill police vacancies can be traced to the Sept. 11 attacks. After the attacks, local and state police departments across the nation faced a shortage of officers and candidates to fill vacancies as many men and women who would have otherwise joined the ranks were deployed overseas to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the same time, the expansion of national security infrastructure siphoned away other potential candidates from local police departments as job openings surged within federal law enforcement agencies and private security firms. As a result, the competition for the same pool of candidates grew, and many federal agencies and private firms offer more competitive pay and benefits, making it harder for smaller departments to compete, according to the RAND study.
Employment in federal law enforcement agencies grew 14 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 Census of Federal Law Enforcement Officers, the most recent year in which the census was conducted.
Of the 120,000 Americans employed by federal law enforcement agencies at the time of the census, about two-thirds were employed by the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. Within the Department of Homeland Security, a majority of its officers were stationed at airports, seaports and border crossings.
Local and state police departments over that same period saw 5 percent growth, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.
There are other factors affecting departments’ ability to attract applicants. Younger candidates don’t find the “grinding lifestyle” of working in public safety very attractive, Bishop, the Bangor police lieutenant, said.
For rookie officers, this means working late nights — often between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., with more senior officers working coveted day shifts — as well as weekends and holidays patrolling city streets. Millennials also are less attracted to the rigid paramilitary structure and the sometimes dangerous conditions of police work.
“The youngest generation of workers has shown marked preferences toward extrinsic work values, such as prestige, changing tasks, social and cognitive aspects of work, and flexibility,” the RAND study reads. “Many of these career expectations cannot be met in law enforcement.”
In addition, an application process that is far more rigorous than the one in place when older law enforcement officers entered the police force also disqualifies many potential candidates.
Bishop noted that the application process can take two to three months, a significant change from when he entered law enforcement in the 1980s.
A candidate for a department vacancy must pass an aptitude test administered by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and a physical fitness test. Meeting the department’s fitness requirements is a “large filter” in the application process, according to Dan Sanborn, the Bangor police training officer. Nearly half of all prospective candidates can’t meet them, an issue that plagues military recruiters as well.
After an initial round of interviews, a candidate must submit to a thorough screening that includes a background check, drug test, polygraph, medical and psychological exams.
“You have to jump through a number of hoops to get hired. Just the mere application process is intimidating,” Bishop said.
In fact, fewer than a third of all candidates make it through the application process to be considered for a position on the force, according to Sanborn. The top reasons many candidates are found ineligible to become police officers: a criminal history, drug use and, increasingly, inappropriate behavior on social media.
“We understand that there are no perfect people in the world,” Sanborn said. “We’re looking for good, honest kids.”
The higher standards for applicants are needed because the very nature of police work has changed since the 1990s, as officers are expected to handle a diverse set of problems within their communities, from helping people with mental health disorders to the drug epidemic to the evolving nature of terrorist threats.
“We want to hire the best of the best. These people are out there serving the community,” Sauschuck, the Portland police chief, said. “As chief, I won’t settle for second best.”