While more serious crimes are making their way northward into smaller New England towns like Westbrook, fewer people are wanting to become police to fight them.

Westbrook, along with communities all over the United States, has seen a severe drop in the number of new recruits to the police department in the last 20 years. At the same time, the job is becoming more challenging and dangerous because criminals are becoming more aggressive, hard drugs are more prevalent and the general public doesn’t respect police officers the way they used to.

“Nobody wants to do the job,” said Westbrook Court Officer Peter Youland. “The pay is so low and, definitely, the risks are high.”

According to Police Chief Paul McCarthy, Westbrook used to routinely receive 60 to 70 applications for each job opening, and in the early 1980s the department once had more than 300 people apply for a single job. Since then, McCarthy said recruitment has steadily declined. Now the department is lucky to get a handful of applicants for any given opening. Right now Westbrook police need to fill two positions, and they have nine applicants so far.

By comparison, Westbrook Fire Chief Gary Littlefield said fire and rescue hasn’t seen anything like the decline in applicants the police have. “It’s been pretty steady over the last 10 years,” said Littlefield.

Low recruitment isn’t limited to Westbrook. Police departments across the state and the nation are experiencing the same problems trying to fill positions.

“Most larger police departments in the state are looking,” said Maine Chiefs of Police Association spokesman Bob Schwartz. “Everybody’s the same in Maine.”

At the national level, recruitment numbers are down as well, according to Rich Roberts of the International Union of Police Associations.

To help the situation, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy has enacted a new program whereby college students can attend the academy at a reduced price. According to Director John Rogers, the program, enacted two and a half years ago, is intended to save departments the costs of sending new recruits to the academy and, at the same time, put more qualified candidates into the marketplace.

The cost to departments of sending a new hire to the academy is $27,000 for the 18-week course, said Rogers. Part of these costs, however, are the new hire’s salary. With the new tuition program, college students can pay about $6,500 themselves for the academy. When they graduate from college, they’re ready to be police officers and are much more marketable to departments, said Rogers.

More dangerous today

According to McCarthy and others, several factors are reducing the number of applicants. One factor is the increasing danger associated with the job.

“As time goes by, crimes that used to be New York City or Boston crimes are infiltrating into northern New England,” said McCarthy. “The job is getting more difficult and risky.”

Youland said when he first started, the number of felonies and drug offenses were nothing compared to today. “Ten years ago, you stop a car in Westbrook, you find either alcohol or pot. Now it’s either crack cocaine or prescription drugs,” he said, adding that along with harder drugs come guns and harder crimes, such as robberies.

In years past theft would constitute person-to-property crimes such as robbing a vacant house, said Youland, but now it’s armed robberies of convenience stores. He added that he thought the vast majority of these crimes are perpetrated by addicts of harder drugs such as crack, cocaine, heroin and prescription opiates such as oxycodone.

Jumping through hoops

Also influencing the number of people wanting to be police is the number of hoops applicants need to jump through compared to civilian jobs out there. There’s a written test, interview, background check, polygraph test, psychological profile, medical physical and a physical agility test. According to McCarthy, many applicants don’t make it as viable candidates through this seven-part process, and most jobs don’t require so much of their applicants, making police work less appealing.

The process weeds out a lot more candidates today than it did in years past because it’s stricter and requires more from the applicant, according to Schwartz. For example, potential officers didn’t used to have to take polygraph tests, but now they do, said Schwartz, which scares a lot off and eliminates many others.

Also, other jobs offer more money and a cushier work environment. According to Youland, police officers probably don’t make as much as people think they do, with most of them making about $50,000 per year with overtime. Most police either moonlight or work overtime to make ends meet, said Roberts.

Also, Youland said the pay scale doesn’t go up that high for police officers, meaning someone on the force for many years doesn’t make that much more than new recruits. Roberts agreed, saying that police salaries don’t go up over the years as much as in other jobs. In Florida, for example, a starting officer can make about $30,000, but that same officer 10 years later might make only $3,000 more, said Roberts. He said Florida might be an extreme case, but pay scale is similar across the country.

Roberts went on to say that competition in the job marketplace is a major factor in reducing applicants to police work. He said departments across the country are requiring more education, either an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, whereas in years past they didn’t. And once a person gets a degree, they have a lot more options available to them, including options that pay much better and are less difficult or dangerous.

School Resource Officer Dan Violette agreed that being a police officer is less attractive to someone with a college education who can make more money somewhere else. And while the corporate world moves towards casual dress, flex time and feng shui in the workplace, police work is still shift work.

“I don’t think the job has changed very much over the years,” said Violette. “Jobs have gotten cushier and cushier over the years, but this job hasn’t.”

Societal change

Beyond that, society’s shift from a one-job-for-life mentality to a mentality of several major career path changes during a lifetime has found its way into the police culture, said McCarthy. Gone are the days when every person who became a police officer was a police officer for life.

When Violette left the Air Force after 20 years, he debated being a teacher or a police officer. He said he decided on the police because it was more exciting, and when he couldn’t physically perform the job anymore, he could then move into teaching. In any case, he’s keeping his options open after he retires from the police.

Rare are the recruits who want to join for life, although those people still exist. Officer Phil Robinson, 25, who joined Westbrook in January, said he always wanted to be a police officer and even went into the Marine Corps in the hopes of helping his chances of being recruited. He said he doesn’t want to do anything else in his life. However, he admitted that he’s still young, single and unencumbered by a family, so the dangerous aspect of his job isn’t a problem for him. Also, he’s used to shift work after being in the Marines.

But McCarthy said he’s seeing a general trend among the younger officers to jump ship within their first five or so years on the force. Many go to bigger departments in bigger cities. Of the last two officers to leave the Westbrook Police Department, one came from a different career background and the other had planned to be a police officer for only part of his career.

Former School Resource Officer Brian Dell Isola, who joined the police four years ago, came to Westbrook from a youth development center in Florida, according to McCarthy. He has since moved on to a police department in Pennsylvania. Former Detective Tim Gardner, who is now a missionary along with his wife and three kids in Moscow, Russia, said he always wanted to be a missionary and knew being a police officer was temporary.

With the changing culture, McCarthy said police departments have had to put forth more of an effort to make up for the low numbers of recruits. He said the department has stepped up its efforts in recruitment. It now goes to colleges and to the police academy for potential new officers. Beyond that, there’s not much it can do. The problem is one suffered by departments all over the country, said McCarthy.

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