Police department aims to compete with larger agencies for officer retention

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FARMINGTON — “We need to stop hemorrhaging people,” Kenneth Charles said.

Charles is the chief of police in Farmington. When he was hired in February 2021, one of his priorities for the department was addressing the issue of officer retention.

Over the last twenty years, 53 officers have left the Farmington Police Department—numerically, this is the equivalent to four full turnovers in that timeframe.

Charles said that approximately twenty officers have left the department in the last five years alone.

For many, Farmington serves as a good stepping stone, not a long-term employer.

Officers tend to leave Farmington Police for opportunities in larger departments, Charles said. Farmington officers have gone on to work for Waterville Police, Cape Elizabeth Police, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and other local, state, and federal law enforcement opportunities.

Of the 53 officers who have left in the last twenty years, Charles said, only a half dozen have retired.

Generally, when determining pay and benefits, a wage study is conducted. This study is based off similar departments in the same geographic area. Charles felt this approach is misguided; if Farmington is basing their study off the other, smaller departments in the area, they’re missing the mark. In some cases, Farmington officers have been employed by area departments, such as Carrabassett Valley Police and Rangeley Police, and moved to Farmington PD for advancement, then moved to another, still larger department.

Instead, Charles did his own research into the departments that they are losing officers to.

These larger departments offer more specialized training along with better pay and benefits packages, which are understandably attractive for many. Charles acknowledged that the move is the right move for the officer — but it leaves the department, and subsequently the town, lacking.

Based on Charles’ research, he and and the Farmington Town Manager Christian Waller developed an increased pay scale and modified benefits packages to be more competitive. By implementing these changes into his department, Charles hopes to balance the playing field.

Charles also wants to encourage further education for officers; they recently added a K-9 position, he would like officers trained in crime scene investigation, and he wants all of his officers to participate in a 40-hour Crisis Intervention training in addition to the mental health first aid training they receive in the academy.

If they can offer competitive pay and benefits, along with the opportunity for more specialized training and advancement, officers may be less likely to seek those opportunities elsewhere. In addition, it may make Farmington more attractive for officers employed elsewhere, or for new recruits.

Charles said that once they get over the hump of pay and benefits, they can capitalize on the other attractions of the region: endless possibilities for outdoor recreation, small-town life, and reasonable proximity to Maine’s major cities.

Currently, the department is staffed at about sixty percent.

The department is structured for thirteen officers, including the chief and deputy chief, and currently there are eight. Of the five vacancies, two are key positions: patrol sergeant and detective. The other three vacancies are patrol officers.

“There are certainly challenges right now in maintaining the level of service based on the number of officers that we are short,” Town Manager Christian Waller said during the board’s budget review on January 18, when the board further discussed the salary increases. “This is designed to ensure that the public is safe and continues to be so.”

Of the eight officers currently at the department, two are administrators, one is the full-time school resource officer, and one is away from the department for eighteen weeks for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Program. There is also one patrol sergeant, and a K-9 officer.

At the end of 2021, as part of the salary changes, the board of selectmen approved a one-time gratuity payment for officers using part of the unspent funds in the police department 2021 operating budget; the funds had been budgeted for the vacant positions within the department.

Charles said that it was a way to acknowledge the increased workloads and the increased hazards from the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last year, they have encountered some of the most intense behavioral health challenges that Charles has ever seen in his career. In addition, his officers have been very flexible with scheduling to allow 24/7 coverage in the town.

“We don’t have the ability to put a sign on our door like a restaurant and say ‘sorry, closed for business’,” Charles said.

In 2021, Charles said, the department logged over 8,000 calls. That included traffic stops, arrests, investigations, crashes, and all other calls. With the department at only sixty percent, that call volume fell on a relatively small number of boots-on-the-ground officers.

Despite the challenges created by short-staffing, Charles said he is committed to hiring quality officers. The department has turned down some applicants in recent months that would not have been a good fit for the department or the community. The department is actively accepting applications and advertising for positions, and he hopes that the changes will attract officers as well as help retain the ones they have.

Charles said that this is a hard conversation to have because there are so many facets. He acknowledged the impact that these changes will have on the taxpayers, but said he had been hired to do a job as chief, and he is trying to do that job. He is trying to be wise to the fact that there are many different players and that everyone is impacted differently.

“We’re nothing if we don’t have good people,” Charles said. “The right people.”

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