City police struggle to find new officers

ELLSWORTH — There may be more criminal justice degree programs than ever before, but local law enforcement agencies are strapped for personnel, said Police Chief Glenn Moshier.

He is looking for two officers to fill the department’s ranks within the next year.

“All agencies are struggling to find people,” Moshier said. Between injuries and vacancies, he added, “Since I’ve been chief we haven’t had one day full staffed.”

“The pay’s not great, the hours are terrible, [law enforcement officers] have a high rate of suicide,” Moshier said. “You put all that into one little package and that’s a hard sell.”

Increased public scrutiny, media coverage and questions over police use of force have also deterred many young prospective officers, Moshier said.

“When you’re faced with a constant negative barrage, if you believe that’s accurate and that’s how people feel — well why would you want to do that to yourself?”

There is no national data on law enforcement vacancies, but news reports suggest that cities around the country have struggled with staffing issues for years. Although the number of full-time sworn officers has increased nationwide over the past 20 years, according to federal Bureau of Justice statistics, it has not kept pace with the number of residents. The average number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents was 2.17 in 2016, down from 2.42 in 1997.

For departments looking to hire, there’s also the tight labor market to contend with.

Many agencies (including Ellsworth) don’t require a college degree, but those that do graduate from a criminal justice program have their pick of agencies, said John Michaud, director of the School of Legal Studies at Husson University.

“Everybody’s hiring,” Michaud said. “Students have their choice.”

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy listed 39 open positions statewide as of June 17, not including those expected in Ellsworth.

Those who graduate with a criminal justice degree also have a wider range of options than ever before, Michaud said.

“We have students who graduate and they want to be able to be a dog-handler, they want to be able to be on the SRT [special reaction team], they want to be on the dive team. They’re looking for all different things.”

Another issue that Ellsworth has run up against, Moshier said, is applicants failing the department’s background check. The check is extensive and involves talking to neighbors, high school friends and teachers. The check might uncover allegations of illegal activity for which an applicant hasn’t been charged or convicted.

Schools with criminal justice programs generally don’t go into the same detail, if they do a check at all, Moshier said.

“These programs don’t do any kind of background,” Moshier said. “They’re not necessarily setting those people up for success.”

Moshier gave an example of an applicant who had graduated with a four-year criminal justice degree from a Maine school but when officers did a background check they found that the young man had been selling Ritalin he’d obtained from his brother, Moshier said. The man hadn’t been charged or convicted, but the incident was a red flag.

“We’ve interviewed a couple of local college graduates and didn’t hire any of them,” Moshier said. “It’s critical that they [college officials] continue to stress decision-making and integrity.”

“We were all young once. We did stupid things,” Moshier said. “With time and distance most things can be overlooked.”

But those in criminal justice programs should be especially cautious.

“You are here studying to be a police officer, yet you’re engaging in activity you know to be illegal,” said Moshier, shaking his head.

Michaud said Husson does not conduct background checks on prospective students, but said it does administer a pre-polygraph test (the Maine Criminal Justice Academy requires that students pass a polygraph test) and stress the importance of good decision-making.

“If our students make a dumb decision and we find out about it we meet with them and suggest they leave the program,” Michaud said. “They’re told by us that it’s a very competitive field” and if students “‘do stupid’ they won’t be getting a job.”

All of these factors have meant that departments competing for qualified applicants are trying to outdo one another with incentives. Amid a hiring crunch in 2017, the Portland Police Department offered a $10,000 bonus to new hires as well as $2,000 to referring officers.

In a similar move, a neighboring department in Westbrook began offering a $14,000 hiring bonus last year. But although larger municipalities may have the cash to offer bonuses and cover vacancies with overtime, said Moshier, smaller cities such as Ellsworth simply don’t have the resources.

The shortage also means departments have opened the pool to applicants who in the past may not have gotten an interview. Portland began considering applications from non-citizens and recent marijuana users last year, and Ellsworth has also taken another look at marijuana use, Moshier said.

“Marijuana has become acceptable to some extent,” Moshier said. “Out of necessity.”

The department looks at drug use on a case-by-case basis, Moshier said, but generally hews to a policy that applicants have not used marijuana within a year. It may even overlook the past use of harder drugs such as cocaine, Moshier said, depending on the time frame, frequency of use and whether or not the applicant was involved in the sale or distribution.

Applicants must be clean of hard drugs for at least a decade, Moshier said, and some drugs are an automatic disqualifier. Any dabbling in “PCP [Phencyclidine] is an automatic no-go,” said Moshier, because users are known to have episodes many years after taking the drug.

All of these vacancies and time spent hunting for applicants may cost taxpayers money and risk staff burnout. In a budget submitted to councilors in April, Moshier planned to spend $40,000 on overtime costs in fiscal year 2020, up from a projected $30,000 this year. (Both of those figures, however, are down significantly from the $88,471 the department spent on overtime pay in 2018.)

To cover shifts, several members of the department worked 60-plus hour weeks. An additional officer would help shift some of the burden, said Moshier, who is looking to fill an upcoming vacancy left by a retiring department member as well as add a position.

“So I’d be out in the market trying to find two officers,” Moshier told city councilors at a meeting on June 10. “Which by the way is not easy.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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