FREEPORT — The Freeport Police Department has a new officer.

Jason O’Toole, 23, recently joined the force after completing his training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

O’Toole is from Middleboro, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston about 160 miles from Freeport. He attended Unity College in Maine and graduated with a degree in conservation law enforcement in May. His annual salary will be $48,000, plus overtime.

While growing up, O’Toole’s family had a neighbor who was a police officer that inspired him to take an interest in law enforcement as a career. O’Toole said he became interested in Freeport because of its sense of community and the small, close-knit department.

As with anyone moving and working in a new place, O’Toole said there will be some challenges as he learns about the town, the people and law enforcement in Maine. He said he has new responsibilities as an officer and that adapting to the changing world of law enforcement will be a continual process.

“So far, in my short time as a police officer, I would say my favorite thing is getting out into the community and being a positive presence,” he said. “In the next five years, I see myself building a career in Freeport and hopefully pursuing a specialty such as drug recognition or becoming a firearms instructor.”

The town councilors last month said they will formally introduce O’Toole to residents at a council meeting early next year.

According to Police Chief Susan Nourse, the department is still short a few officers and will be advertising for additional full-time officers soon. Nourse did not answer an email seeking specific numbers by The Forecaster’s deadline, but said her department includes a lieutenant, two sergeants, a school resource officer, a detective and 10 officers. There’s also a harbormaster and two clerks. In comparison, the Falmouth Police Department includes a chief, two lieutenants, three sergeants and 14 patrol officers. In Yarmouth, the police department is also led by a chief, who supervises a lieutenant, two sergeants, a detective and eight patrol officers.

Nourse said the best recruit is one recommended by police officers currently on staff who express an interest in working with that person.

“Freeport PD is a cohesive group of officers who stand by each other and work together to provide the best service to the citizens they serve,” she said.

“(We are looking for) people who want to help others stay safe in their homes, at work, and in the community,” Nourse said. “People who have high standards of honor, commitment and integrity, and people who are physically and mentally fit to take on the responsibilities of police work.”

In 2018, the most recent year data was available, there were 2,009 full-time police officers spread across 134 departments in Maine. Portland is the biggest with 146 officers; there are six departments with only one full-time officer, including Phippsburg.

The 18 state law enforcement agencies, including the Maine State Police and the Department of Corrections, had 892 full-time officers and 723 part-timers. An additional 1,492 officers are employed at correctional facilities and county jails.

Nationally, 66% of police departments reported seeing declining numbers of applications, according to a survey of 400 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year that the number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents decreased from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016. The total number of police officers in the U.S. also declined, from 724,690 in 2013 to 701,169 in 2016.

The FBI – the nation’s most visible law enforcement agency – has had similar recruiting challenges, with special agent applicants plummeting from 68,500 in 2009 to 11,500 last year. The Bureau doubled its recruitment advertising budget in 2019 in an effort to attract more applicants.

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