The Houlton Police Department. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Houlton Police Department is only at about half power, with seven vacancies in its 15-member staff. Although that reflects similar shortages happening all around the state, the Houlton chief’s approach to filling them is new.

Chief Tim DeLuca is focusing his attention on locals who want to pursue a new career, instead of seeking out experienced officers from other parts of the state as most departments do.

“We may get people right out of college,” he said. “Where we have found the most value is recruiting inexperienced men and women who are from the region and know what Aroostook County is all about.”

Houlton’s problem is not unique. There are approximately 300 vacancies in police departments across the state, DeLuca said. And nationwide, the shortage was not helped by the anti-police rhetoric stemming from the May 2020 George Floyd killing. In Maine, departments tend to trade experienced officers back and forth, not really bringing many new people into the equation, except through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy twice a year. But Houlton’s approach to recruiting could help the department with retention because the officers already have roots in the community they will serve.

The seven openings in Houlton include the second-in-command captain’s position; five patrol officers, including a supervisory position; and a part-time animal control officer.

“Burnout is real,” DeLuca said. “We are at crisis time.”

DeLuca said the officers he has retained are willingly taking on extra workloads and shifts. Instead of spending his days handling administrative duties, DeLuca assists with patrols to fill gaps.

But that extra workload is also exacerbating the problem, making the staff more tired and stressed. COVID-19 has played a factor in the police shortage, in addition to public perceptions caused by national events, the chief said.

“Mistakes have been made by law enforcement and those were magnified nationally,” he said. “There is now a [negative] aura around the profession. The good thing is law enforcement here in Maine is leaps and bounds ahead of other parts of the country thanks to training.”

The Houlton Police Department is not alone in its struggle. Other local police forces in Presque Isle, Caribou and Fort Kent, as well as the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and Aroostook County Jail have all experienced shortages at various times in recent months.

For Sheriff Shawn Gillen, the current problem with staffing does not involve having enough patrol officers, but workers for the Aroostook County Jail.

“The [commanding officers] just negotiated a new contract with the county, so hopefully that will peak some interest there. This is really coming down to what an agency has to offer. It’s a buyers market for law enforcement or corrections. I don’t know when we will hit the ceiling but I feel it’s close. Something has to give, we can’t keep going in this direction,” Gillen said.

Lt. Brian Harris, commander of the Maine State Police Troop F barracks in Houlton, said the state police were not immune to shortages. The barracks has three openings.

“We always have vacancies, it varies from month-to-month and year-to-year,” he said. “Our hiring practices are not standard like a local business. Someone retires or promotes, their position stays open until someone is assigned out of an Academy class. If we are in between classes, that could be months or more than a year. If we have an Academy and we don’t get anyone out of it [we have vacancies statewide], then it could be years before we fill an empty spot.”

The Fort Kent Police Department, which at one point was considering shifts with no coverage, was able to fill its vacancies by increasing wages, offering incentives and switching to the Maine state retirement system.

The Houlton department is already part of the Maine Public Retirement System, but is borrowing a page from Fort Kent’s tactics. It is now offering retention incentives to keep the officers the department hires.

Houlton’s police officers, with no experience, start out at $21.12 an hour. That figure increases to $21.84 after one-year of service. Those who come in with prior experience receive a higher rate of pay, the chief said.

“A hiring bonus is good, but a retention incentive is more powerful,” he said. “We need to do a better job of keeping the people we have here through appreciation and some sort of bonus.”