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One officer per shift: Maine small-town police departments face dire staffing shortages

Right now in Pittsfield, there is only one police officer per shift. The department is offering $15K sign-on bonuses for qualifying applicants.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — Recruiting officers has become a dire situation for many of Maine's small-town police departments.

"The reason we do this is because we enjoy working with people and we want to keep people safe," Officer Mike Cray from the Pittsfield Police Department said.

When people think of police departments, many picture big agencies with lots of officers, but more than half of the police departments in Maine have fewer than 20 officers. 106 out of 163 active police departments in the state are considered small.

In Pittsfield right now, there is only one officer working per shift.

Even though Pittsfield is a small community, there are still substance abuse challenges and crime day in and day out, and they're working with a fraction of the resources that larger city police departments.

Chief Pete Bickmore said sometimes calls are backed up, and just a few weeks ago, Cray was assaulted while responding to a call alone.

"I couldn't sit there and wait for help. I ended up with a real bad black eye. He head-butted me and I was talking with the people in the street to call 911 to try and get me some help. I couldn't draw my taser just because where his hands were, and I had one handcuff on and his hand was down by my weapon, so I couldn't let that hand go," Cray said.

Cray said he was able to restrain the guy and place him under arrest after a state trooper pulled in to assist 15 minutes later.

"The challenge nowadays is that everybody is scrutinizing everything you do, so I'm standing there wrestling with this guy and trying to get him under control, and I look out and there are eight to 10 people standing there in the street running their cameras," Cray said.

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Cray typically spends his mornings at the schools in town as a student record. Nowadays, he is working extra shifts and extra hours to help fill the void the department is facing.

"The best hat is obviously the SRO job. I love that and enjoy doing that, but then I have to change my hats at night and go in and be a police officer,” he said.

"We are a one-man department when we are working, only one guy on a shift," Cray said.

“I don't know of any agency who will tell you that they are full. I think across the board, every agency has some vacancy rate,” Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, said.

Bickmore said they rely on other police departments and agencies for emergency calls because of how short-handed they are. 

"When we all work together, we work together as a force multiplier. That's how I like to call it, and we help each other out," the chief said.

“To see somebody at an accident, in a bad accident, and get a call from them sometime later on saying 'Thank you, you helped save my life' ... those are the things that are the most rewarding,” Cray said.

This was a tough weekend for the Pittsfield Police Department. On Saturday we arrested a suspect for robbery at Dysarts...

Posted by Pittsfield Maine Police Department on Tuesday, September 21, 2021

"I've been working with the town manager and the town council to try to increase our staffing levels so we can have two officers on a shift for officer safety purposes," Bickmore said.

The Pittsfield Police Department has recently added a $15,000 sign-on bonus for certified officers and they have also increased hourly wages.

Bickmore said he is working about 70 hours a week. He said it's challenging for his small crew to safely and effectively investigate crime situations and events because the resources are not there.

Bickmore told NEWS CENTER Maine that he has only been approved by the town council and manager to hire one more qualifying officer and for him or her to receive the $15,000 bonus, but he is hoping to work with the council and manager to get more officers. He said it's only safe for officers to cover emergency situations with at least one other officer.

Bickmore said people thinking about being police officers or in law enforcement should "take a strong look at it and not be affected by everything that's going on in the world and realize it's a great profession and something they should look into. They might find out they really like it, and they can help a lot of people."

"We have a shifting demographic on what, frankly, what younger people perception is and how they view law enforcement, and in some cases for the worst. We are also, frankly, dealing currently with the social arrest that we dealt with last year and we continue to deal with," Desjardins said. "Our brand has been harmed."

Desjardins said the law enforcement profession is vital for the free society and it creates a sense of security that makes communities feel safe and people want to live in those towns. 

"We have a vital piece to the puzzle," Desjardins said.

If you are interested in learning more about the requirements of the Pittsfield Police Department, can call the police department at 207-487-4439.