Scarborough and South Portland are struggling to find new chiefs of police, and a lack of morale among police nationwide stemming from increased anti-racism criticism and de-funding efforts may be partly to blame.

“I don’t think we’re immune to what’s going on nationally,” said South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli.

Both communities have been searching for four months to find replacements for their chiefs. In South Portland, Chief Tim Sheehan announced he was resigning in March after being in his position for a little over a year. In the same month, Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton announced he was retiring after more than 40 years with his department, 20 of those as chief.

Hall

Both Morelli and Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said they thought they would have successors by now. Hall said he has re-opened the position to new applications, and will keep it open until Aug. 1. Morelli said his department is expected to do the same, starting this fall.

“We basically have pushed ‘pause’ on the search process,” Morelli said.

Hall said the initial round of interviews yielded fewer than 10 candidates, which he said he found surprising. “The candidate pool was pretty small, smaller that I would like, frankly,” Hall said.

Morelli said that after an early screening process, he only had two candidates to choose from.

This is not just a local problem. A nationwide survey on police morale was conducted in May by The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based policy development group whose board of directors is made up mainly of law enforcement personnel. The survey found that the rate of resignations from 2020-2021 increased 18% compared to 2019-2020, according to 194 responses. The group also found the retirement rate in large departments, described as 500 officers or more, went up 27% in the same period, and overall retirement rates went up 45%.

Ed Tolan, former Falmouth police chief and executive director of the Maine Police Chiefs’ Association, said he knew of at least six police departments in Maine struggling to find candidates for chief or deputy chief, though he declined to identify those departments.

This is a stark contrast to when Tolan applied to be chief in Falmouth in 1996. At the time, he said, he competed in a pool of 100 applicants.

“Apparently a lot of people don’t want to do this job anymore,” Tolan said.

Tolan said low morale was a side effect of increased scrutiny and calls for police department de-funding nationwide that began with the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer.

“I think it’s coming full circle,” he said.

Tolan said he was “sickened” by footage of Floyd’s death, but said good police officers have borne the stigma that has come from anti-police movements, and it is leading to fewer people wanting to risk taking on a dangerous profession without enough public support.

“I think people started painting cops with a broad brush,” he said.

In South Portland, the city council diverted $25,000 from the police department budget in 2020 to help create the South Portland Civil Rights Commission. Publicly, relations between the department and marginalized citizens groups have been positive, but Morelli said he was not surprised at suggestions that police morale is down overall nationwide, and that it might be a factor in the city’s search for qualified candidates for chief.

“I think a lot of people are deciding right now if they want to choose that profession, or stay in that profession,” he said.

In Scarborough, there were no calls to defund the police department last year, Hall said, but he said that the department has always taken a proactive stance toward working with the community in general, noting the department has had a social worker on staff for some time, and it’s helped improve the department’s interaction with the public.

“If anything, we’d like to expand those kinds of services,” he said.

Hall acknowledged that low morale resulting in increased police scrutiny nationwide could be a factor in Scarborough’s chief search, too, saying, “I suspect that there is some relationship.” Hall also speculated that the strain of a global coronavirus pandemic probably isn’t helping.

While searches in both communities continue,¬†Interim Police Chief David Grover is running Scarborough’s police department, and Acting Chief Amy Berry is running South Portland’s department.

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