The Millinocket Police Department, which closed in December 2020, sits dark in the town’s municipal building. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

As a handful of small Maine police departments struggling to fill positions close or weigh whether they can keep their doors open, state figures show the number of officers in local police departments has dropped nearly 6 percent since 2015.

Town and city police departments as well as county sheriffs’ offices employed 2,587 officers in 2020, down from 2,745 in 2015, according to annual reports from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

The data point to a shrinking pool of interested and qualified candidates for local police jobs, a phenomenon that hits small police departments particularly hard, according to some who work in Maine law enforcement. It’s also a challenge that police in Maine are far from alone in facing, especially following a year during which police practices across the nation were called into question following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Over the past year, at least three small Maine police departments — in Dixfield, Millinocket and Van Buren — have closed as they’ve struggled to fill their rosters. Recently, the police chief in Fort Kent said his department was at risk of closing as it struggles to fill vacancies, and the town of Gouldsboro weighed whether to keep its diminished police department, which had recently lost its chief and one of its two other officers. (Voters supported keeping the department for the second time in three years.)

The loss of officers “impacts your ability to handle calls and leads to higher response times,” said Edward Tolan, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and a retired Falmouth police chief. “When you only have one, two or three officers on the shift, that can impact those officers.” 

The decline in police officer numbers in Maine hasn’t been uniform, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy data show.

Between 2015 and 2020, the number of full-time officers at the state’s 130 or so local departments actually increased by 89, but the ranks of part-time officers whom small departments in particular depend on fell by almost 250, to 540 in 2020 from 787 five years earlier.

The state’s three largest municipal police departments — in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — saw their ranks fall slightly in that time, to 304 officers from 318. And the Maine State Police, the state’s largest police force, grew from 302 officers in 2015 to 306 in 2020, according to spokesperson Shannon Moss.

Maine’s 16 county sheriffs’ offices saw their full-time ranks grow, from 364 to 418, while the drop in part-time officers led to an overall decrease in officer numbers.

Data are limited, but plenty of anecdotal evidence exists that shows the lack of adequate staffing compounds itself, said Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the state’s law enforcement oversight and training body.

Officers often burn out and leave after being forced to work back-to-back shifts to cover vacancies, he said. They can leave smaller departments for better pay at larger area departments, the police chiefs in Fort Kent and Machias have told the Bangor Daily News recently, or they can leave law enforcement altogether.

The drop in part-time officers is likely the result of such officers moving to full-time work, for which the demand is high, said Sgt. Wade Betters of the Bangor Police Department.

The hiring challenges don’t only apply to small, rural departments.

The Bangor Police Department has seen more than a third of its 84-officer force turn over in the last five years, Betters said.

The city’s roster of 84 officers in 2020 was up from 77 in 2015, according to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. But it can take as much as a year to replace an officer who leaves, said Betters, who pointed to factors such as low compensation, the demands of the job and exacting hiring standards as reasons why there’s a dearth of new officers. 

“All departments are competing for the same pool of qualified applicants,” he said. “It’s a red flag for the future of law enforcement.”

A lack of public support for police was another likely culprit for the lack of candidates looking to enter the field, Betters and Tolan said.

“Anti-cop sentiment [is coming] not just from members of the public, but it’s often happening from town leaders and wanting to defund the police,” Tolan said. 

The Bangor Police Department recently renegotiated higher wages for its officers, which may help it become a more attractive employer, Betters said.

Maine has traditionally had among the lowest crime rates in the nation, and one of the lowest levels of police employment in the nation. In 2019, Maine had more police officers for every 10,000 residents than only four states, according to FBI data.

Over the past decade, even as Maine police departments have found it increasingly difficult to fill positions, crime in the state has dropped. The rate of property crimes in Maine, for example, was about 50 percent lower in 2019 than 10 years earlier, according to FBI statistics.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Maine State Police troopers in 2020.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk team for the Bangor Daily News and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School whose recent work has appeared in Strikewave, Defector, and The American Prospect....