THOMASTON, Maine — This winter, Thomaston police Chief Tim Hoppe knew he was in for a tough few months when two officers left the department just as another was headed to the police academy for 18 weeks.
But spring isn’t proving to bring any relief, as two more officers have accepted positions with the local sheriff’s office, leaving just Hoppe and one part-time officer to provide police coverage for the town with about 2,800 residents.
“It’s pretty serious,” Hoppe said sitting in his office Tuesday. “Thomaston has a longstanding police department. But it’s had its ups and downs.”
With the Thomaston Police Department having difficulty recruiting and retaining officers, the town is at a crossroads in how to move forward with providing law enforcement services.
In June, voters will decide whether to continue funding an independent police department or to dissolve the department and contract with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which would provide four full-time deputies with dedicated coverage of the town.
To cover the town — which straddles Route 1 south of Rockland — the Thomaston Police Department is budgeted to have four full-time officers, plus the chief.
Currently, without any full-time officers aside from Hoppe, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office is covering Thomaston on Sundays and Mondays.
Hoppe, the part-time officer and several reserve officers are able to provide coverage for the remaining five days of the week. With his last full-time officer leaving Saturday, Hoppe will begin to cover the night shift next week so the part-time officer can take the day shift.
“I’ll get through it like I always do,” Hoppe said.
Hoppe is far from the only police chief struggling to retain police officers. Across the state and country, law enforcement agencies are struggling in this aspect.
In recent years, Maine police departments have seen a decrease in the number of qualified applicants. The problem reflects a national trend, with four of five police departments reporting a shortage of qualified candidates, according to a 2010 RAND study.
“It’s not even just in smaller towns, it’s departments in general across the country. Everybody is facing these problems. It seems that law enforcement is becoming a difficult profession to hire for, ” said Edward Tolan, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
The draw of family benefits
To entice prospective officers to apply and stay on with the department, Hoppe has been advocating for the town to begin offering family health insurance benefits to the department’s employees.
While adding family benefits is not the cure-all for the department, Hoppe said, “it’s a stability builder. It at least attracts the people we’re looking for.”
Thomaston selectmen accepted the latest resignation from the police department at their meeting Monday night. Officer Jacob Labo, who has been with the department for two years, said he took a job with the sheriff’s office because the move allows him to provide health insurance for his family.
“I strongly believe in order for the department to remain, the town must provide family health benefits to keep pace with other local departments and to spark interest for those [who] are thinking about working for the Thomaston Police Department,” Labo wrote in his resignation letter.
Maintaining a five-person roster and adding family health benefits would increase the police department’s annual budget for 2019-20 by about $50,000, to $609,000, according to figures provided by Hoppe and town officials.
There are several cost projections that town officials are considering for a contract with the sheriff’s office. Four full-time deputies to cover Thomaston for 20 hours a day — broken up into two 10-hour shifts — would cost about $527,000 per year, according to Town Manager Val Blawstow. The final cost would depend on where the sheriff’s deputies fall within the sheriff’s office payscale.
The town is currently in mediation with the union that represents municipal employees, including the police department, according to Blastow. Health benefits are a part of that discussion, though it is unclear what specifically is being discussed or how the June vote could affect negotiations.
Tolan said the ability of a department to offer competitive wages and benefits is a “huge” factor in attracting qualified applicants.
“The younger generation of police officers may have five, six or seven jobs in their career,” Tolan said. “They go to the jobs where the benefits are. You don’t see the 35-year veterans anymore. Times have changed dramatically.”
Hoppe said he doesn’t blame any of the officers who have left the department during the past year. He knew they were having to think about what would be best for their families. But the situation further convinces Hoppe that adding family benefits is what would be best for the future of the department.
“I look at it as supporting what the guys want. It’s important to support your people,” Hoppe said. “Even when you have no one, it’s important to support your people.”
Switching to the sheriff’s office would save the town money and offer more coverage than the Thomaston Police Department currently can. But not all residents are ready to give up their police department.
“One of the reasons I chose the town of Thomaston to move to 41 years ago was because it had its own police department,” Anita Knowlton said at Monday night’s selectboard meeting.
“There is nothing wrong with the sheriff’s office. It’s just not going to be the same coverage. They’re not going to know the people as well as our officers do,” she said.
Hoppe said familiarity is a big part of community policing, which is something the Thomaston Police Department prides itself on doing. “There is a comfort level in having your own police department,” he said.
Tolan said in small towns, there is a benefit to people knowing the chief and knowing officers on a first-name basis. He said it is not necessarily common for towns to dissolve their departments and switch to sheriff’s office coverage, but it does happen.
“Maine is one of those states that values home rule, and you give up home rule when you dissolve the department and sign onto the sheriff’s office,” he said.
Thomaston has recently made strides toward attracting news businesses after the Maine Department of Transportation finished a two-year overhaul of the section of Route 1 that doubles as Thomaston’s Main Street.
As the town focuses on growth and development, taking away the police department would be shortsighted, Thomaston Recreation Director Rene Dorr said.
“Having a police force and an ambulance service and a fire department are things that are going to keep people moving to our town,” Dorr said.
Select board members plan to hold an informational meeting on the law enforcement options that will be included in the June referendum. That meeting has not yet been scheduled, though it will likely occur about a month before the June vote, according to chair Peter Lammert.