MACHIAS, Maine — The 2016 Washington County budget includes an additional officer for the sheriff’s department. Filling that position, however, will likely be a challenge, according to the sheriff.
“Not a lot of people have the interest [in law enforcement] they used to have,” Sheriff Barry Curtis said Wednesday.
Police officers simply move from one department to another without new people coming into the pool, First Deputy Michael Crabtree said.
“What we’re doing here is we’re just recycling cops,” Crabtree said.
The county will soon have two additional openings. One officer is moving on to the state police and another is moving to Florida, Curtis said.
Curtis said he believes part of the problem the county has with filling positions is the fact that the pay is about $15 per hour, or approximately $31,200 annually, regardless of experience.
In contrast, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said his office pays approximately $18 per hour, or $37,440 annually, for sheriff’s deputies.
A position for a full-time officer in Cumberland, advertised on the Maine Criminal Justice Academy website, pays between $41,246 and $48,526 annually — $19.82 to $23.33 per hour — depending on the candidate’s experience.
“We’re going to have to do something with our pay scale,” Curtis said. “Even some of these small departments pay more than the county pays.”
County Commissioners Chairman Chris Gardner, himself a former sheriff’s deputy, acknowledged the problem Wednesday.
“We all kind of recognize that [pay] is part of the problem,” said Gardner, who served as a sheriff’s deputy from 1996 to 2003 and as an Eastport police officer from 2003 until he became executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. He said he still works part time as a police officer in Eastport.
“I tip my hat to the men and women who still wear that uniform,” Gardner said. “It’s up to the people to decide what they want to pay for.”
In order to increase the salary, the sheriff’s office must make a request to the county, whose budget committee considers it.
Gardner said he and Curtis have had informal discussions about the salary, but that question did not go before the budget committee this year. Instead of considering salary, the budget committee opted to budget for the additional officer, bringing the total complement to 11 full-time positions, he said.
The problem of finding people to fill law enforcement positions is not unique to Washington County. Police departments all over the state are having trouble filling positions because the number of applicants is declining, according to Merry, who also serves as president of the Maine Sheriffs Association. It used to be that a job posting would attract “dozens” of applications, he said.
“Today if you get a single dozen, some departments would consider that lucky,” Merry said.
Crabtree said Washington County is lucky to get five or six applicants for a single opening.
“How do you convince someone to come up here if they don’t have ties to the area or family here?” Crabtree said.
Curtis said he loves living in Washington County but acknowledges the rural atmosphere is not for everyone. It may contribute to the reasons officers leave after they’re hired.
“It’s hard to get people to stay put,” Curtis said. “Young people today kind of bounce.”
Merry confirmed this, saying the issue lies with the younger generation, many of whom don’t want to work holidays and weekends, which is required for law enforcement.
“People switch departments regularly,” John B. Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, said. “There seems to be less loyalty to an agency … than there was 30 years ago.”
Fortunately, when newly trained officers move on to other departments, the original employer can sometimes recoup expenses. If the new officer has attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy within the past five years, the new employer will have to pay the former employer up to $30,000, according to state law, Rogers said.
If an officer leaves within the first year of training, his former employer is reimbursed $30,000. The reimbursement is decreased by 20 percent per year. No reimbursement is given after five years, he said.
Rogers said this figure was determined several years ago by surveying departments to find out what costs they had incurred with officer training. It was not only the $2,500 academy tuition but also the person’s salary during training, the costs of overtime for having an open shift covered by other officers and the costs of items related to hiring, such as the physical, psychological evaluation and polygraph test, he said.