TOPSHAM — The Topsham Police Department is looking for a few good recruits.

Topsham Police Chief Chris Lewis hopes to make his department more competitive in the job market amid a glut of police openings throughout Maine.

The department is four people shy of its full complement of officers, which prompted Police Chief Chris Lewis to approach the Board of Selectmen on Thursday about incentives to attract more applicants.

Police shortages aren’t confined to Topsham, or even Maine, Maine Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Robert Schwartz said.

When fully staffed, the Topsham department has 16 officers, plus two reserve officers, Lewis said in a recent interview.

A desire to reduce overtime costs and expand law enforcement presence throughout town around the clock prompted the May town meeting to authorize hiring two new officers.

Those two positions were filled in July, but the next month Officers Donald Cowles and Garrett Decker took jobs in Augusta and Brunswick, respectively.

Also, longtime Officer Troy Garrison had been out most of the year on medical leave. He retired Tuesday, after the Oct. 31 retirement of Detective Mark LaFountain, which left the department with four vacancies.

Officer William Collins is Topsham’s new detective, and the department tapped Officer Kerri Libby to fill Collins’ animal control-traffic officer role.

“Technically, that (makes) us down four positions on the road,” Lewis said. “So the challenge becomes trying to get someone into that position, and then shifting our workload around.”

In seeking new recruits, the department has attended job fairs for veterans and college students. But it’s been an uphill battle, the chief said, and three applicants for the open positions never showed up for their interviews.

“We’re still trying to advertise, trying to seek different avenues, to see where we’re missing and what we can do to change our marketability,” he said.

But Topsham, along with other municipalities, faces a tight job market right now.

“There are so many agencies across the state that are hiring,” the chief said, noting that people can find an array of openings on the Maine Municipal Association and Maine Criminal Justice Academy websites. Each listed more than 20 openings Tuesday.

“You can pick and choose where you want to go,” Lewis said. “You want to go to northern Maine, you want to go to southern Maine, you want to go to the midcoast area; wherever you want to go, there’s somebody that’s hiring in that area.”

Some salaries start at nearly $24 an hour. Topsham offers almost $21, although people certified with experience can be hired at a higher rate and the pay increases with longevity, Lewis said.

Police contracts are up for negotiation next year, and Lewis said he hopes for consensus on an agreement that makes the department more competitive in recruitment and retention.

Despite the challenges, “we’re not going to lower our standards; we’re going to maintain the status quo,” he said. “But we do want to increase our marketability, and how do we do that? This is a great town, this is a great area, we have great businesses, we have a thriving mall area.”

The bustling Topsham Fair Mall and surrounding roads place a high demand on services. Trying to maintain those services with fewer people has led to more overtime hours and has made the department less proactive in dealing with some matters, the chief said.

“When you’re investigating a theft complaint and it’s taking you an hour or two,” you’re not going to have time to go out and work the traffic,” he said.

“Everybody here has been wearing multiple hats,” he said, “and really pulling together and working together and making sure that the shifts are filled, and making sure that the job is done correctly, without losing that professionalism.”

Schwartz, a retired South Portland police chief, said police recruitment is “an issue all over the place,” particularly in the past few years.

“The pool used to be 100, 200 candidates when you advertised,” he said. “Now if you get 10, you’re lucky.”

And background checks can quickly whittle down that number. A drug charge at the age of 17 or 18 can prove detrimental when applying for a police job at 22, Schwartz said.

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