Nearly 30 law enforcement agencies are advertising job openings on the Maine Criminal Justice Academy website in hopes of attracting part-time and full-time police officers, state troopers and dispatchers, and filling other positions.

The Westbrook Police Department is trying to stand out from the crowd.

Chief Janine Roberts said her staff of 40 is stretched thin because four positions are vacant and at least four other officers are serving limited duty because of injuries. So she is offering a $14,000 hiring bonus to entice applications from officers with at least five years of experience.

“I’m down a quarter of my staff with the next police academy not starting until August of this year,” Roberts said.

Westbrook’s problem is familiar across the country.

There are no national data on the number of vacancies in law enforcement jobs, but news reports show departments in Virginia, California, South Carolina, Texas and other states are also experiencing staffing shortages. They point to many of the same political and economic challenges when it comes to drawing people into the profession.

Bob Schwartz, a retired police chief from South Portland and the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he sees law enforcement agencies at all levels struggling to fill vacant positions.

“Everybody has openings,” he said.

Schwartz attributed the vacancies in part to the political attention police officers have faced in recent years.

“It’s very difficult to get a person who wants to be in law enforcement today,” he said.

Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, agreed that increased scrutiny of officers has made some qualified applicants more wary of law enforcement jobs. The association represents 52 police departments, and Gaspar estimated 40 percent are struggling with vacancies due to challenges in recruitment, as well as budget cuts.

“I think generally over the last year and a half to two years there has been clearly a lot of coverage about the role of police in the community,” Gaspar said. “They are under the microscope 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

TENSION, LOW PAY, BAD HOURS

Nationally, police officers are at the center of tension over race relations in the United States.

Gallup reported Americans’ confidence in police hit a 22-year low in 2015, though it has improved slightly since then. Fatal shootings of African-Americans by police in Missouri, Louisiana and other states sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and prompted widespread protests.

Most officers believe their jobs are more difficult in the wake of these high-profile incidents between police and African-Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. The same survey showed the police and the public disagree on how well American adults understand the risks and challenges of the job.

In 2016, law enforcement fatalities also rose to 135 – the highest level in five years. That number includes a total of eight officers killed in ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge last July, which were apparently carried out by people angry over police brutality, especially against minorities.

“Ten or 15 years ago, I don’t believe there would be an officer expecting out of nowhere to be ambushed, and that has become a real issue,” Gaspar said.

But other factors like pay and hours are also making police work less attractive.

In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported national mean pay for police and sheriff’s patrol officers was $61,270 per year, or $29.45 per hour. The annual mean wage for police and sheriff’s patrol officers in Maine is between $30,870 and $43,710. That compares to an annual median wage for all Maine workers of $44,180 for 2015.

In Westbrook, a 2014 wage survey showed the city paid its police officers a lower hourly rate than many surrounding communities, including Portland, Gorham and Windham.

“Our pay isn’t attractive when compared to other local agencies,” said Officer Phil Robinson, president of the Westbrook Police Association.

SOME PUT OFF BY SHIFT WORK

Brunswick Chief Richard Rizzo said his usual staff of 35 is down to 31 officers, including two still in training.

He speculated shift work is not appealing to young people with families.

“These young guys and women don’t seem to want to do the job,” he said.

Assistant Portland Police Chief Vern Malloch estimated the Portland Police Department is seeking candidates for seven vacancies out of 163 positions.

“Some of our best candidates are folks with college degrees and exceptional reasoning skills and exceptional communication skills, and those are traits that are in demand across the labor market,” Malloch said. “The people who can meet the standard often have many opportunities.”

Drawing qualified officers away from their existing departments is also a challenge. Schwartz said those employees would consider factors like the opportunity for specialized work, seniority and the timing of the shifts.

“Money is not everything when it comes to working and hiring police officers,” Schwartz said.

It does sweeten the pot, however.

In Westbrook, Roberts has received applications from 10 qualified officers since advertising the $14,000 bonus. Three – one officer from Maine, two from out of state – are in the hiring process now.

“I believe it is reaching our goal,” she said of the incentive.

‘INCENTIVE … PAYS FOR ITSELF’

With so many vacancies, Roberts said the officers were stretched thin. The department had spent 91 percent of this year’s overtime budget by March 3 – about $173,500 of $190,000. The fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30. Offering a $14,000 perk for veteran officers is cheaper and more efficient than bringing on uncertified recruits, the chief argued.

In a report to the Westbrook City Council, she broke down the math based on the 2015 pay rates in the officers’ most recent contract.

The cost of training an officer at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and covering overtime shifts in the meantime adds up to $63,202.

By contrast, an officer with five years of experience does not need to attend the academy. Even at a higher salary and with the $14,000 signing bonus, the city would spend $41,282 by the time that person is fully integrated into the department.

In addition to weeks of training time, Westbrook saves $21,920 by hiring the experienced officer over the rookie.

The hiring incentive approved by the City Council is distributed in two parts – $7,000 upon hire and $7,000 upon first anniversary with the department. Should the officer leave within two years of hire, he or she would have to return part of the bonus. An out-of-state candidate who doesn’t meet Maine’s standards in a certain period of time will also lose parts of the bonus.

The three hires are going through background checks before their hires can be finalized. Roberts will continue to offer the bonus to qualified officers, and she anticipates selecting a couple of younger recruits for the next police academy in August.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant endorsed the plan, and the city council adopted it in January.

“The incentive more than pays for itself in savings,” Bryant said. “You look at it and read the finances, and it’s a no-brainer.”

UNION’S TAKE: ‘A SLAP IN THE FACE’

Robinson, from the Westbrook Police Association, said most union members were not happy with the proposal. They feel a pay raise would make a hiring incentive unnecessary, he said.

“They feel it is a slap in the face, as they have doubts they would be offered a retention bonus should they make the decision to start a career elsewhere,” he said.

However, others have a neutral attitude toward the hiring bonus and simply want the vacancies filled.

“Members are feeling the pressure of being understaffed and the low staffing levels are affecting morale,” Robinson said. “The staffing levels are also an officer safety issue, as officers are working increased hours, becoming burned out and their minds aren’t on their work.”

Westbrook is not the first department in Maine to offer such a bonus, but the amount is greater than those recently offered in other towns.

In 2015, the Skowhegan Police Department decided to offer a bonus to new police officers who pay their own way through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. The town would add a $3,000-per-year stipend to that officer’s salary for three years to entice “tuition students” at the academy.

In 2016, Brunswick offered a bonus for any police officers who had graduated from the academy. The offer was $5,000 – $2,500 at hire and $2,500 one year later. Rizzo said it drew one hire from upstate New York but he is still looking for qualified candidates.

In Portland, Malloch said the department will watch the effect of the incentives in Westbrook and Brunswick.

“We’ve never done it in the past,” he said. “We’re going to look and see how successful they’ve been with it. We’re hiring right now, too.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle