Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca shows members of the Houlton Town Council the department's new mobile data terminals that were recently acquired thanks to a grant from the Putnam Charitable Trust and COVID-19 relief funds. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Faced with a nearly 50 percent job vacancy rate, the Houlton Police Department decided to change things up and look at how and why they were recruiting officers.

So, Police Chief Tim DeLuca asked his team to think outside the box. What is important to us and what do we really want from an officer, he asked, adding that focusing on the local community was key.

Most police departments recruit people with law enforcement backgrounds or who are already officers, resulting in police continually passing qualified people between departments. Some try incentives like sign-on bonuses or better benefits. But Houlton instead is looking to hire people of good character with no experience, so they can train them within the department, with the idea that if they are part of the culture first, it may help retain them.

The Houlton department is willing to put in the work training new recruits if they meet law enforcement benchmarks including good moral character, career-mindedness, honesty, integrity, clean background and pass a polygraph and psychiatric evaluation, DeLuca said.

“My team is young and hard workers,” DeLuca said. “We decided, let’s put the effort into someone and train them within the culture of the Houlton Police Department. Let’s start with no experience preferred.”

And because being an integral part of the community is important to the department, DeLuca said they want to make sure the new recruits can communicate well with others and that they are team players who understand the mission of the department.

Recruitment and retention is a national, state and local problem with nearly 78 percent of law enforcement agencies saddled with rapidly increasing retirements and declining recruitment, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Locally, police forces in Presque Isle, Caribou, Fort Kent, the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and Aroostook County Jail have all struggled with staffing shortages.

Out of 14 positions, Houlton’s department was down six people overall, including four patrol officers. But its new approach seems to be working and it is starting to rebuild, with three conditional officer hires currently on the table.

“The chief and the officers worked hard at recruiting,” said Town Manager Marian Anderson. “They are willing to take a green person and move them along.”

A lack of interest in law enforcement for several reasons — not wanting to do the job, increase in service calls for violent crime and an anti-police sentiment — are deterrents to hiring, DeLuca said.

“Most people who want to work in law enforcement want to help people and the current culture is obscuring the vision,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies reported an 18 percent increase in resignations and a 45 percent increase in retirements compared with the previous year, in a Police Executive Research Forum 2021 survey.

Negativity surrounding law enforcement in general, pandemic fatigue and pressure from family to change careers contributed to this downturn, according to the report.

Retention is more important than recruitment, DeLuca said. And he is pushing for a retention bonus instead of a hiring bonus, common in many departments these days, in order to reward the officer who stays.

“Take somebody who works here eight years, then we hire and give a bonus, not rewarding the officer for staying. That’s going to create a morale issue. Let’s reward those who stay and give a bonus on each anniversary,” he said.

It takes approximately 12 weeks to get “boots on the ground,” said Deluca, adding that there is about a $125,000 investment in pre-training before the recruit goes to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Because of the vacancies, DeLuca is covering the road to back up officers and dispatchers, and the rest of the team has picked up the increased workload to make sure the community is covered until the recruits are trained.

“I am humbled by the level of the community’s support,” DeLuca said.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...