THOMASTON, Maine — With two police officers recently leaving the department, and one slated to go off to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in January, it could be a long winter for Thomaston police Chief Tim Hoppe if the department’s vacancies are not filled soon.
When the officer leaves for the academy — with the two vacancies — that would leave only Hoppe and one other officer to cover the town of about 3,000.
“If we’re fortunate enough to fill the two positions, the [departure for the] academy we can work around because we’d be one officer up from where we are now,” Hoppe said.
But filling vacancies is becoming increasingly difficult, Hoppe said, and Thomaston is far from alone. There are about 40 police officer vacancies from departments across the state posted on the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s website.
In recent years, Maine police departments have seen a decrease in the number of qualified applicants. The problem reflects a yearslong national trend, with four of five police departments reporting a shortage of qualified candidates, according to a 2010 RAND study.
Since Hoppe joined the Thomaston Police Department in 2005, the department has struggled to retain a consistent roster, with officers leaving for personal reasons, often to pursue another job.
In June, Hoppe had just filled two vacant positions that were created after two officers resigned in February. Just five months later, he finds himself down two officers again.
Currently, with two officers, the chief and a reserve officer who can work a couple hours a week, the department is trying to staff 18 hours of patrol coverage per day, down from 22 hours with full staff.
The short staffing adds to the stress of the job, Hoppe said, and can be a damper on morale.
To secure the future of the department, Hoppe is asking town officials to consider bringing back family health benefits, which the town discontinued for police officers in 2005. Hoppe believes extending health coverage would help attract potential officers who want to set down roots.
“We’re trying to think of ways to keep people in town,” Hoppe said. “But [family health insurance] is not an answer to everything by any means.”
Thomaston Town Manager Val Blastow said the town is currently in mediation with the union that represents municipal employees, including the police department. While he could not discuss specifics, he said health benefits are a topic of discussion.
Hoppe said adding two more officer positions to the roster — making it six officers plus the chief — would also help bolster the department so officers would not always have to work alone.
Earlier this year, Portland assigned a full-time officer to serve as a recruitment specialist after the city experienced chronic problems filling vacant positions. The department also offers a sign-up bonus to entice more applicants. This summer, the department had 12 new officers join the ranks after the large recruitment push.
While Thomaston would not be able to follow in Portland’s footsteps, Hoppe is hopeful that adding family health benefits would be a good first step for the town to take.
“I know the town cares, and the town truly likes having their own department,” Hoppe said. “I think they’re just financially trying to figure out how to make it work.”