Maine public safety agencies have had trouble in recent years attracting qualified candidates to staff their workforces. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Looming retirements present the latest potential challenge for police departments across Maine as law enforcement battle against low recruitment and retention numbers.

Interviews with policing experts and data from some of Maine’s largest public safety agencies indicate that as more officers become eligible to leave, cops across the state could see departures among their workforces add to the national “retirement wave,” leaving agencies to scramble to cover their service areas with fewer personnel and resources.

In May, Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank, published a survey showing police retirements nationwide had increased by 45 percent between April 2020 and March 2021 compared with the previous year. The trend was most pronounced among agencies with 249 or fewer officers.

Maine public safety agencies have had trouble in recent  years attracting qualified candidates to staff their workforces. In the past 5 years, the number of cops on the beat statewide declined by 6 percent.

Twenty-four troopers with the Maine State Police are currently eligible to retire, while 21 will be eligible in the next year, according to Lt. Col. Bill Harwood. Seventy-six troopers will be eligible for retirement in the next three years, nearly 25 percent of the 306 troopers currently working.

While officers need to meet basic standards for employment, there are no age requirements or terms of service that mandate retirement. The Maine Public Employees Retirement System requires that officers have 25 years of service under their belt before they can draw retirement benefits.

Some agencies have policies where officers can access limited benefits after they reach a certain age. Police unions have negotiated contracts in the past to lower those age requirements and grant officers a higher amount of their salary in retirement.

There are some 163 law enforcement agencies in Maine. The Bangor Daily News contacted several state and local agencies and spoke to personnel from the Maine State Police, Augusta Police Department, Lewiston Police Department and the Bangor Police Department.  

According to Kevin Lully, Augusta’s deputy police chief, almost 20 percent of that department’s 45-person force is eligible or will soon be eligible for retirement. Two people retired this spring, one each in March and May, and another six will be able to retire this year and in 2023. Members of the union’s patrol force bargaining unit can receive two-thirds of their salary after retiring, while those in the administrative bargaining unit can receive half.

“Retention is great as far as longevity. More people are making it to retirement,” Lully said, though recruitment remains a challenge. “We’re hiring very qualified and high-quality people but we’re just not getting the applicant numbers.”

“We are now getting a trickle of [applicant numbers compared with] what we are used to,” Hardwood said. “We are still finding high quality applicants, but from a much smaller pool.”

From 2016 to 2020, between 57 and 65 officers graduated every year from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Program. On Friday, 67 officers graduated from the program in Vassalboro, its largest ever, said spokesperson Shannon Moss. The 2021 class also included a Maine Forest Service ranger, marking the first time that rangers could attend the training program.

A quarter of the Bangor Police Department’s 84 certified officers will be eligible for retirement soon, Sgt. Wade Betters said. Fifteen officers are currently eligible for retirement, and another six will be eligible in the next five years. Betters expects that eight will retire in the next two years. The department is actively recruiting to fill current and future anticipated vacancies, he added.

Lewiston Lt. David St. Pierre said that 13 officers were currently or would be eligible to retire in the next three years. With a current force of 77 certified officers, Lewiston was not in as dire straits as other agencies, but St. Pierre acknowledged that his department was also struggling for applicants to bring their agency up to full capacity. “Obviously everyday we’re looking for qualified people to fill those vacancies.”

The issue of mass retirements in law enforcement is not a new one, according to Phil Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who said there’s been a pattern among police departments for decades.

Myriad factors are responsible for the recent trend, Stinson said. The COVID-19 pandemic and an economy-wide labor shortage has exacerbated the phenomenon, but he also pointed to increased scrutiny from the public due to the Black Lives Matter movement and high-profile incidents of police brutality as reasons why potential candidates might think twice about entering law enforcement.

Another expert, University of Maine sociology professor Brian Pitman, said that despite conventional wisdom, there was little correlation between the number of police on the beat and crime rates.

However, Stinson said the impact of retirements and inadequate staffing could lead to certain kinds of specialized units and training being cut in order to have enough numbers to fulfill the “core responsibilities” of policing.

“Certain kinds of detective work you can’t forgo. Some kinds of work you absolutely have to do, someone has to answer the phones,” he said.

On the municipal side it could lead to lower police budgets, when politicians see that cops can perform their duties despite fewer people in the department, Stinson added. “The municipal governments are getting involved and starting to say, ‘We’re gonna lower your budget because you can obviously get it done’ with the fewer resources.”

It’s not certain whether such cuts will be permanent, and Stinson added that police departments usually recover after boom-and-bust alternating cycles of new hiring and mass retirements. He posited that the problems plaguing Maine agencies will eventually pass.

“This is nothing new. It’s been going on for the last 20 years.”

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.