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WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville’s police department plans to offer some of the training typically available through the state’s criminal justice academy in hopes of filling vacancies and drawing more young people into the field.
The department has 31 sworn police officers and is down six as of Thursday — the largest number of vacancies Chief Joseph Massey has seen in his 36 years in the city, he said.
During a recent city council meeting, City Manager Stephen Daly said the department was undergoing “an exodus of police officers,” and warned the next few months could be rocky.
Police departments across Maine are wrestling with how to fill open positions, often turning to aggressive advertising and enticing sign-on bonuses. With at least 25 agencies around the state hiring officers since early June, Massey said, leaders have been forced to scope out creative solutions.
But one of the largest challenges is differing attitudes and philosophies between generations about policing, which has caused fewer young people to pursue law enforcement as a career, Massey said. Another is the time, cost and other factors associated with pre-service training, which is required for those who want to become officers.
“We’re finding that younger people [and] millennials are not coming into law enforcement,” Massey said. “They have different ideas about law enforcement compared to past generations. It makes it difficult to hire qualified people.”
Errors by law enforcement are also magnified nationally and can lead to negative perceptions and skepticism of officers, which could be a contributing factor to shortages at some Maine agencies.
Although agencies can offer sign-on bonuses for new hires, leaders have recognized it isn’t a long-term solution, Massey said. It could mean experienced officers will move around from department to department, often for similar jobs but better pay because of the bonuses.
Officers are leaving for a number of reasons, including changing careers, relocating to be with family and accepting positions at other agencies that they’ve always preferred, Massey said. Some have moved to the sheriff’s office. During exit interviews, some have shared that they’re unhappy with the work environment or supervision, Daly told city councilors last week. He also noted a retirement leaving a vacancy.
For those without training, getting into law enforcement is a lengthy and involved process, Massey said. So Waterville is offering its own version of a law enforcement pre-service training program, traditionally run by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
The criminal justice academy requires students to complete three phases of pre-service training, which is offered several times a year, before they earn certification as law enforcement officers.
Requirements include a 40-hour online class and test through the academy, two weeks of on-site training Monday through Friday, and, finally, getting hired at an agency that will provide 80 hours of practical training and supervision. The first and second phases cost $350 each.
Students often find themselves requesting time off from work or using vacation days to complete the training. This is a major obstacle for young people, especially those raising a family, Massey said. Lodging is another cost if people need to travel for on-site training.
In mid-May and early June, Waterville’s police department held six information sessions during evening hours and weekends for those interested in law enforcement careers. Six people attended, which was fewer than officials had hoped to see.
“We walked them through every single phase of the hiring process, not just the pre-service,” Massey said, including paperwork and background, criminal and driver’s license checks, among other requirements.
Recruits were welcome to fill out the necessary forms at the station and ask officers questions during sessions. Massey hopes that breaking down a daunting process, plus holding pre-service training during times that accommodate working people’s schedules, could draw more officers to Waterville and other agencies.
The department plans to begin pre-service training in September. One person who attended an information session has committed, and several others have applied since the sessions ended, Massey said.
Police departments in Belfast, Veazie and Hampden want to send their recruits to receive training. Waterville will charge those agencies a fee for participating, Daly said last week. Hosting the training requires Waterville’s time, staff and resources, but drawing a larger number of students from multiple agencies will make it worthwhile, Massey said.
“It’s helping the recruitment process, but it’s a long way from what it used to be when I had one opening and 50 applicants,” he said. “Now I have five openings, and I’m struggling to get five applicants.”
Besides pre-service training, Waterville is advertising on social media, in newspapers, at job fairs — and even on TikTok, thanks to a recruitment video that Mayor Jay Coelho produced. The department is considering hiring officers on a part-time or per diem basis as well, Daly said.
Sergeants have come to the chief requesting him to consider that option because of the burden that vacancies have put on staff, the city manager said.