For small Maine police forces, low morale and few applicants are problems that compound each other
By Bill Trotter, Bangor Daily News Staff
For years, police departments have been finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified applicants for patrol officer positions. That difficulty doesn’t just mean that other officers have to work longer hours. It can also affect morale.
As municipal law enforcement agencies throughout Maine struggle with maintaining full rosters, some are finding that low morale or even turmoil within their ranks are contributing to the instability. Police departments in Eastport, Presque Isle, Gouldsboro and Millinocket all have dealt with persistent turnover throughout their ranks and, in the past year or more, turmoil that has involved police chiefs who have been fired, investigated, disciplined or placed on leave.
The instability, in turn, can make it difficult to recruit new officers, creating a vicious cycle that leads to departments under stress, added legal expenses and town officials being at odds about how to address the problems.
“It makes it all that much harder to recruit,” said Ed Tolan, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and a former police chief in Falmouth, adding that the standards for becoming a certified law enforcement officer in Maine have become more strict over the years. “Recruitment is difficult everywhere right now.”
A significant factor that hampers recruitment is the pay, Tolan said, which is a particular problem for more remote departments in rural sections of eastern and northern Maine. With qualified applicants harder to find throughout Maine and elsewhere, departments that can afford it increase their pay to lure more applicants, who sometimes come from smaller departments with lower budgets. Small-town departments with a small tax base have a harder time drawing interest.
“Some of the pay up there is awful,” Tolan said of Maine’s more remote police departments. “How do you support a family on that?”
Having to work long hours due to lack of manpower and unprofessional conduct in a department can affect morale, he said, while scrutiny and criticism of police departments can be as intense in small towns as it is in larger cities. If there is a perceived lack of support from fellow officers, supervisors or elected officials, officers and potential applicants are more likely to look elsewhere for work, he said.
“You’re damn right that’s going to affect your morale if they can’t back you up,” Tolan said.
Dale Brooker, an associate professor in criminal justice at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, said that the culture of police departments can vary from one town to the next, but that more widespread scrutiny of policing — from general Black Lives Matter protests to more specific complaints about particular officers — likely affects recruitment everywhere. People who see police work more as a calling, or who come from families with a strong law enforcement background, are more likely to seek out police jobs than people with a casual interest in the field, he said.
“You’re going to end up having people who excel at their jobs” regardless of that scrutiny, he said, but those people likely will seek out jobs at bigger departments, where the pay is better and there is more opportunity for advancement.
“Rural policing more often sees those challenges, where you’re not seeing the cream of the crop,” Brooker said.
Still, development and performance standards for police chiefs have improved over the years, and those development opportunities are available to departments throughout the state, not just those in or near larger population centers. Organizations such as the Maine Municipal Association can help with attracting and screening candidates for entry- or top-level positions, he said, while the FBI offers professional training courses to law enforcement supervisors at both large and small departments across the country.
Some departments nevertheless descend into dysfunction, with their chiefs being at the center of the controversy, but Brooker said such situations are uncommon. But, he added, disagreements at smaller departments or in smaller communities can cut more sharply when an officer has fewer peers to confide in or co-workers to help dilute the ire.
“If you feel like you’re alone on the job, there’s nothing worse than that,” Brooker said.
Todd Hand, the chief of police in Machias, has been trying to fill out his roster of four full-time officers — which includes his job — since he was hired more than a year ago, but he still is having difficulty.
One position has been vacant since he started, and now he has another position becoming available with the pending departure of Sgt. Wade Walker, who is leaving to take a job as an officer in Baileyville. Baileyville, which benefits from property tax revenue paid to the town by the Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue mill, pays its starting officers $20 an hour, plus a signing bonus, while the starting pay in Machias is around $16 per hour and there is no signing bonus, according to Machias officials.
When Hand was hired, the Machias police department had been in turmoil. The prior chief had been fired, the department had faced multiple civil lawsuits over the past decade, and it had come under criticism from local residents for not making officers accessible, either by phone or in person, to the general public.
In taking over the department, Hand was tasked with raising its level of professionalism and making it more accessible and involved with the local community. To be able to attract qualified officers who can help improve the culture of the department, he said, he needs to be able to compete on pay with other departments.
“The bottom line is money,” Hand said. “You only get what you pay for.”