To be able to compete, Maine police simplify recruit process

DAVID HENCH Staff Writer

Copyright 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc. 
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
The Portland Police Department wants to streamline its hiring process and step up recruitment to better compete with other departments in Maine and elsewhere for a dwindling pool of prospective officers.

The department has to make changes, officials say, to keep up with the aggressive recruiting and lucrative offers coming from other communities.

The stakes are high, say police commanders. They don't want to settle for subpar candidates then give them a gun, the powers to arrest citizens and the responsibility for protecting a community.

Portland police are seeking a change in civil service rules so the department can give monthly written tests online with instant results rather than offering a civil service exam twice a year, followed by months of delays before an officer can be hired.

"We lose candidates to smaller departments who processes are more agile," said Portland Deputy Chief William Ridge. "They can't just wait eight months for you to get around to hiring them. They need a job."

"This creates a rolling admission where we always have a list of potential candidates," he said. "We're not compromising any standards. We're just trying to do it in a more timely fashion."

Toward that end, the city has started hiring candidates even before they are certified by the Criminal Justice Academy, giving them classroom training and jobs around the station while waiting for the next 18-week academy class to start.

Portland also plans to train officers in recruiting techniques and develop a promotional package to take on the road to job fairs and college criminal justice programs throughout the region. The latter is particularly important when it comes to the difficulty task of recruiting minority officers, Ridge said.

Recruiting new officers is a challenge to departments throughout the country. Some are offering signing bonuses of $5,000 and others reward officers with extra time off if they refer successful applicants.

"The shortage of new officers is one of the top concerns facing law enforcement across the country," said Jennifer Boyter, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Departments are trying lots of different things in trying to recruit officers, including signing bonuses, higher salaries, bonuses for bringing in people and help with housing costs."

The competition for new cops shows that interest in law enforcement careers is declining, police officials say.

"The number of applicants for police jobs is down dramatically," Ridge said. "A number of years ago, 175 to 200 applicants took the civil service test. Now it's 40."

That number is cut in half, sometimes more after testing for physical ability and job suitability, review of resumes, interviews, and a lie detector test. Candidates' personal finances are screened to make sure they are not susceptible to corruption.

A small pool of applicants means departments can't be as selective in who they hire.

Maine State Police are facing a shortage in recruits as well. The agency is authorized to have 348 sworn personnel and currently has 15 vacancies.

The department had reserved 10 spots in the Criminal Justice Academy class that starts this month, but ended up sending just one prospective trooper. It hired six new troopers from other agencies but is barely treading water, said Col. Craig Poulin, chief of the state police.

"It pretty much gets me to square one," Poulin said, the day after three of his troopers had retired. "Now I'm looking at the end of next year (2006) before I get another group of people through the academy."

"Obviously I'd like to recruit the good ones for myself. My counterparts in the sheriff's offices and municipal departments want the good ones for themselves, too," Poulin said.

One challenge the state police face is that a trooper can be assigned anywhere in the state, though Poulin said applicants can get a pretty good idea of where there are vacancies before committing to the job.

The state police have done some recruiting at job fairs and colleges, but Poulin said it's tough to divert people to that task when budgets are lean and bodies are scarce. For that same reason, offering signing bonuses for new officers hasn't taken hold here.

A department hiring an officer from another department in Maine must reimburse some portion of the $27,000 it costs to train and outfit a new officer. Some chiefs have considered using some of the money saved in training costs to offer signing bonuses as a way to better compete for applicants.

Lewiston Deputy Police Chief Mike Bussiere said his department, the second largest municipal agency in the state with 83 full-time officers, is at full strength right now. But the number of people applying for police jobs is way down from past years, he said.

"Part of the reason is there's other jobs out there that pay pretty well where you don't have to work holidays, weekends, third shifts, don't have to be away from families, don't have to deal with stresses of police work," Bussiere said.

Bangor police haven't had to fill a vacancy in two years, said Deputy Chief Peter Arno. Of two vacancies they have had, one position was eliminated and the other is frozen.

Portland plans to send 11 entry-level officers to the academy this month and is talking with three experienced officers considering transferring from other departments. The department is filling vacancies created by recent retirements and career changes and must cover some long-term military and medical leaves.

But the competition is stiff.

"It's not unusual for me to be looking at candidates being looked at by three other departments in southern Maine," said Clarkson Woodward, personnel director for the Portland Police Department. "Good candidates have their pick."

When recruiting young officers, Woodward stresses the department's opportunities for advancement, special assignments and training.

Often, when dealing with officers who are already working and raising young families in other states, Portland as well as other Maine departments sells the state's quality of life.

"They're very conscious of crime and schools and the kind of environments their children are growing up in," Woodward said.

Ultimately, it may be a low level of crime that serves as Maine departments' best recruiting tool.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
January 3, 2006

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