Twenty years ago, Sanford police Maj. Matthew Gagne had to beat out 50 other people for one of two openings. Now, the department is only down two officers, but two recent hires are still waiting to get into a limited spot at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

People used to line up for jobs in law enforcement.

In the early ’90s, Sgt. Timothy Ontengco spent two years as a part-time deputy with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office just to get his foot in the door before he could earn a full-time position.

When Maj. Matthew Gagné wanted a job with the Sanford Police Department 20 years ago, he had to beat out more than 50 other aspiring cops for one of two openings.

Even just a few years ago, openings in Caribou, the remote Aroostook County town, would regularly draw interest from some 20 applicants, Chief Michael Gahagan said.

But today, three of the 15 positions on Caribou’s roster are vacant, and in six months, Gahagan hasn’t gotten a single application. Officials say it’s a similar story in Portland (39 openings), Bangor (11 openings), and most every department in Maine and beyond.

There were 310 unfilled full-time law enforcement positions across the state at the end of 2022, according to data compiled by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. And while some department leaders report moderate improvements to their recruitment and retention efforts last year, everyone agrees it has gotten far more challenging to find people to work in law enforcement over the past five or six years.


The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram spoke with leaders from nearly a dozen agencies about the struggle to fill their rosters. They offered a number of explanations for the labor shortage: high rates of burnout related to the drug and homelessness crises, a bottleneck at the police academy and increased criticism of law enforcement.

In response, departments have entered into a fierce competition for a limited pool of workers – and leaders warn that those on the losing end have been left dangerously undermanned.

“I don’t see a good end in sight,” said Ontengco, whose Oxford County office is down eight out of 26 positions and regularly has to require employees to pick up overtime shifts to keep up. “Ultimately, the loser is going to be the citizen.”


For those who feel a calling to serve their communities, police work can still be deeply rewarding. But there’s a consensus that the job is more challenging than it used to be, which has made it less attractive to those simply looking for a vocation that will support a comfortable life.

Most officers come to the profession because they want to prevent crime and catch criminals, said Sgt. Jason McAmbley of the Bangor Police Department. But more and more of the job today is related to the growing homelessness, drug and mental health crises. And those calls often require police to act more like social workers – a role for which they didn’t sign up and sometimes feel ill-equipped.


“I’m glad I’m off the street,” McAmbley said. “Some of the stuff that some of the officers are doing now, I don’t know that I could put up with it as long as they do.”

A Bangor police officer, right, asks protesters to move during former President Donald Trump’s visit to Bangor in June 2020. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

The physical and psychological tolls of working in law enforcement remain as great as ever. Some officers pointed to elevated rates of divorce, suicide and substance use within the profession, which experts have attributed to the stress of the job. Others mentioned the growing frequency of mass shootings in America – events that require police to take on risks usually reserved for soldiers in the special forces.

And almost every department leader the Press Herald spoke with said several highly publicized incidents of police brutality in other parts of the country have driven people away from the field.

Saco police Chief Jack Clements, whose department is down eight of 37 positions, said he had two excellent officers leave the industry after the George Floyd protests in 2020 (several other leaders also cited Floyd’s murder as a turning point for the political climate around policing).

Even though most Mainers seem to support law enforcement, he said, officers feel they’ve been increasingly scrutinized by politicians and the media, which has added yet another layer of stress to a job that requires workers to make snap judgments in high-pressure situations.

“They did not want to make a mistake at 3 o’clock in the morning and have their names plastered all over the news for their family and everybody else to see,” Clements said. “Everybody’s questioning everything.”


Protesters stand near a line of police in riot gear on Franklin Street in Portland early in June 2020. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Veteran officers around the country are retiring or moving into the private sector, leaving big holes that leaders say are challenging to plug.

Even though programs like Husson University’s School of Legal Studies report strong enrollment numbers in recent years, the heads of Maine law enforcement agencies say they are receiving far fewer viable candidates to fill their ranks than they used to.

Some theorized that today’s students are less willing to pay their dues in an industry that often requires young officers to work nights, weekends and mandatory overtime shifts for years before they can move into highly sought-after specialties like detective or K9 handler. The early years of law enforcement careers have always been difficult, but as other industries shift toward flexible schedules, remote work and comparatively higher salaries, police jobs suffer in comparison.

Others said they’ve seen more would-be recruits in recent years struggle to meet baseline requirements like passing a physical fitness test and a background check.

Even though the days of dozens or even a hundred applicants fighting for a single job opening are gone, there remain enough new cadets to consistently fill the 70 seats available at each of the two, 18-week basic trainings the Maine Criminal Justice Academy holds each year, according to Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss. But because of the recent exodus from the industry, which Moss and others said was partially caused by a large wave of troopers hired in the 1990s reaching retirement age at the same time, the academy can’t graduate new officers fast enough.


Like other departments that send officers to instruct at the academy, state police are able to reserve training spots for their cadets. Moss said the agency hired 35 troopers and investigators last year and hopes to bring in another 40 this year.

But the finite number of seats at the academy can leave other departments waiting months for help, even after they find someone willing to work.

The Sanford Police Department is officially only down two officers after hiring two new recruits in November, Gagné said. But the backlog of cadets around the state means the new Sanford officers are stuck behind nearly 20 other names on the waitlist for the already-full January academy training. If they don’t get in, they’ll be able to do some limited training with the Sanford team, but they won’t be able to take on the full job until they finish the next academy session in December, more than a year after their hire dates.

As a result, some departments have increased their efforts to attract lateral “blue pin” hires from other agencies. But that trend has caused its own problems.


Staffing shortages require officers to work longer hours, sometimes past the point when a hefty overtime check feels worth it. But for some of those who managed to stick out the worst of the labor crisis, which several department leaders said bottomed out about a year ago, new perks have emerged.


In Waterville, some of those perks seem small – letting officers grow beards, switching to load-bearing vests that reduce strain on officers’ hips and back. Others hit big, like raising hourly wages for patrol officers with five years of experience from $32.17 to $35.17.

“It’s kind of a mercenary industry now,” Maj. Jason Longley said. “If you’ve got the money, people will come to you.”

Waterville police Maj. Jason Longley said the department started letting officers grow beards and upped hourly pay as ways to help recruit more people to the force. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

The Waterville Police Department is still advertising four vacant positions out of its roster of 32, but things have been looking up recently, Longley said. The department has brought in 11 hires in a little more than a year, and he’s optimistic that it might fill its last openings by midsummer.

A huge part of Waterville’s success has been its ability to attract veteran officers from other agencies, whom Longley said make up about half of the department’s recent hires.

Several other agencies have taken similar steps to sell themselves to lateral hires who might be looking for greener pastures.

Sanford no longer requires blue pins to come in at the bottom of the pay scale. Larger departments like Bangor and especially Portland emphasize opportunities for officers to join specialty teams that smaller agencies don’t have, like bomb squads and crisis negotiation teams. Some agencies have offered sizable sign-on bonuses or shifted to a four-day work week.


While staffing remains difficult across the board, law enforcement leaders from several towns said the situation is beginning to improve. But the agencies who can’t afford to offer a competitive wage tell a different story.


Ontengco has been with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office for more than 30 years. Not many can say that.

“No one retires from Oxford County,” he said. “People don’t stay here long enough to get to that point.”

For years, deputies have been complaining about the department’s pay, which they say lags far behind other agencies. It has long frustrated Ontengco to watch talented coworkers who want to stay in Oxford County leave for better-paying gigs, only to be replaced by rookies just out of the academy. He compares the experience to being a fan of a small-market baseball team – it’s tough to compete with the Yankees when you won’t pay for your stars.

But now that neighboring agencies are actively poaching veteran officers to fill their own holes and the academy isn’t producing enough cheap rookies to replace them, the problem in Oxford County and other rural areas has gotten much worse.


Since 2018, about 25 people have left the department, Ontengco estimated. They’ve gone to Cumberland and York counties, the state police and other departments that promise significantly higher pay than Oxford County – which in 2023 offered deputies with five years of experience $26.52 an hour, compared with $31.07 in Cumberland. Those who stayed have been rewarded with mandatory double shifts just to keep the department afloat.

Police stand near tactical vehicles on Allen Avenue in Portland on Dec. 15. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The situation is dangerous for everyone, Ontengco said. In some cases, deputies have been forced to respond to domestic violence calls or reports of assault by themselves because no one is available to provide them backup.

Ontengco fears that some of the men he supervises will be so overworked that they’ll fall asleep at the wheel of their cruiser or make a mistake in a high-pressure situation.

In Rangeley, which has been unable to fully staff its tiny department of three since April 2021, police have been forced to pass calls to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office because they can’t keep up with the load, patrol Sgt. Jared Austin said. But because the sheriff’s office is stretched thin, too, nonemergency calls sometimes go unanswered until the next day.

Austin and Ontengco are both hoping that upcoming contract negotiations will result in pay bumps they say their departments need to compete for workers. Without that support, they fear the problem will just get worse as the cost of housing continues to increase.

“We’re kind of in a survival mode,” Austin said. “Something needs to change.”



Law enforcement leaders say there’s no simple way to bring more people into policing – or to the many corrections officer and emergency dispatch positions that are also vacant all across Maine.

Police departments recognize they must break the vicious cycle that has defined the industry for the last several years – the more people leave law enforcement, the harder the job is for those who remain, which in turn drives more workers out. And when officers get stretched so thin that they can only react to calls instead of proactively building relationships in the community, they lose the opportunity to win back the trust that police have lost among some groups in recent years.

Still, many have chosen to remain optimistic, including Kyle McIlwaine of the Portland Police Department.

McIlwaine, who joined Portland’s force in 2018, knew from the time he was a kid that he wanted a job where he could help people, and he saw law enforcement as an obvious fit. But like many in the industry, he said he was rattled by the public’s response to George Floyd’s murder, which included demonstrations outside the Portland Police Department that ended with violent confrontations. He wondered if maybe law enforcement was not for him after all.

He stuck with it, and his faith in the cause returned. Last spring, he earned headlines and praise from his bosses when he helped soothe a homeless man who was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

McIlwaine told the Press Herald in September that bringing people back to law enforcement starts from showing up every day and, despite the challenges, doing the job the right way.

“I think it’s just important for us to remember why we got into this profession,” he said. “I think that it’s still a worthy job. I think that there is much good that can be done.”

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