Portland’s interim Police Chief Vern Malloch congratulates the 12 new police officers after their swearing-in at City Hall on Friday.

A dozen new recruits were sworn in as Portland police officers during a sweltering ceremony Friday at City Hall, making it the largest addition to the force in roughly two decades.

Troy Pelletier, far right, of Vassalboro watches as his wife, Danielle, photographs their son, Adam, and his fiancee, Britnay Whitaker, after Adam was sworn in Friday with 11 other new police officers at City Hall.

City officials credited aggressive recruitment efforts to produce the largest incoming class since the mid-1990s. It comes at a time when police departments throughout Maine and the country are having a difficult time finding new officers.

Earlier this year, Portland devoted an officer to focus full-time on recruitment, and since last year the department has been offering signing bonuses to new officers and recruitment bonuses to existing officers to refer a successful candidate.

“This is a first for us in a lot of ways,” interim Police Chief Vern Malloch said. “It was a tremendous success to get this many.”

During the ceremony, Malloch lauded the qualifications of the 12 recruits, half of whom have military experience, as “the best of the best.” He promised their families that the department would do everything it can to keep them safe.

“They are so good that I think they could work anywhere and be successful,” Malloch said. “Friends and family members who are here today, I pledge to you that we will do everything in our power to provide them with the best training, best support and all the tools necessary to do their jobs. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure they’re protected while they protect the city.”

Although the department also loosened rules this year to allow non-citizens with federal work authorization and people who have used marijuana within the last five years to be eligible for hire, none of the new recruits fall under those categories, a city official said.

Michael Walton of New York poses for a photo with his wife, Amanda, and their children, Olivia, 3, and Luke, 1, after Michael was sworn Friday in with 11 other new police officers at Portland City Hall.

Despite having a pool of about 500 applicants, only one recruit was a woman and all of them were white, although one recruit is fluent in Arabic and another speaks Spanish.

All of the city’s departments are looking to diversify their ranks, including police.

Portland is the most diverse community in Maine, which is 95 percent white, according 2016 U.S. Census estimates. In Portland, 16 percent of the city’s 66,650 residents are people of color, including 8.3 percent who are black or African-American. And a little more than half – 50.5 percent – are women.

According to demographic data on 146 Portland police officers, only six, or 4 percent, are people of color – five are black and one is Asian – and 16, or 11 percent, are women, all of whom are white. Those figures do not include the new recruits.

Malloch said the city could be doing a better job recruiting diverse candidates, who must pass a battery of tests, including written and physical exams, background checks, polygraph tests, oral interviews and psychological screenings.

“We’re not seeing a large enough pool of diverse applicants,” Malloch said after the ceremony. “It’s a difficult program and we’re really selective. We’re doing the best we can.”

Delaney Albert was the only woman in the incoming class. The 23-year-old said that she was drawn to police work because both her father and grandfather were police officers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Delaney Albert, 23, of Cambridge, Mass., is introduced as one of 12 new police officers sworn in at City Hall on Friday. Albert’s father and grandfather were police officers in Cambridge.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Albert said. Qualifications, rather than demographics, should drive the hiring process, she said. “I think everyone who was qualified made the cut.”

The ceremony follows a more aggressive recruitment program unveiled this year, as police departments across Maine and the United States struggle to fill their ranks.

Incentives include a $10,000 signing bonus for new officers and a $3,000 recruitment bonus for current officers who recruit a successful candidate. And a new union contract that took effect in January 2017 will give rank-and-file officers a 10 percent raise over the next three years.

But Malloch said the biggest factor in the unusually large class was designating Officer Kate Phalen as a full-time recruitment officer. He credited Phalen’s social media efforts and outreach to candidates throughout the process for the successful recruitment effort. “She did a great job connecting us on social media platforms,” he said.

The new hires put the Portland Police Department – Maine’s largest police force – at nearly full strength. Only five vacancies remain out of an approved force of 161 sworn officers. Malloch said two recruits are already lined up for the January academy. “I do feel that we’re not necessarily at a crisis level (anymore), but it’s certainly a challenge and it’s going to continue to be a challenge” as officers retire, he said. “I think we’re going to continue to offer the bonuses and continue the efforts that made us so successful this time.”

In addition to Albert, Portland’s new officers are Ian Leitch, James Oliver, Michael Walton, Adam Pelletier, Kevin Nielsen, Brian Rollins, Jesse Dana, Justin Fritz, Matthew Burnell, Nevin Rand and Jeffrey Drew.

Since only one of the new hires is already an officer, Malloch said the other 11 recruits will spend 18 weeks at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro and then at least 14 weeks in the department’s field training program.

“They are going to join the Portland Police Department family,” Malloch told family and friends who gathered in the State of Maine Room to watch the ceremony. “You’re going to join our family, too – whether you like it not.”

 

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