Pittsfield police Officer Will Kettle, who recently joined the department, patrols the Maine Central Institute campus Wednesday. The town is moving to hire additional officers to join Kettle on the force. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

PITTSFIELD — Days after Pittsfield police officers released a letter saying their ranks are so thin their safety is comprised, town officials approved a pay increase, additional vacation time and other incentives to help attract new officers.

The Town Council on Tuesday approved an amended agreement with the police union that includes a $2.50-an-hour pay increase and an additional week of vacation for current officers and new hires.

The town had earlier approved an agreement that amended the residency requirement for officers and offered a $15,000 signing bonus to new hires.

The latest changes came less than a week after several officers sent a letter to the Town Council asking that steps be taken to hire additional officers. The officers expressed concern about working long shifts and patrolling alone when facing a potentially violent situation.

The letter was released a couple of days before officers were injured on the job in two incidents involving combative suspects.

The Police Department has been understaffed since the spring, according to Chief Harold “Pete” Bickmore. The department is budgeted for seven full-time positions, including the chief. Currently, the department has four officers, including two who are not fully trained and cannot patrol alone, and a school resource officer who splits his time between the schools and patrols.

“Typically, there’s only one officer on a shift, which to me is an officer safety issue,” Bickmore said.

There has been some confusion about hiring within the department. The letter from officers referred to two qualified candidates who were hoping to join Pittsfield’s police force. Meanwhile, Town Manager Kathryn Ruth has said the chief has the authority to hire at any time.

Bickmore said Wednesday that negotiations related to additional hiring began after he had been approached by two officers, who are employed elsewhere, about joining his department. The two officers had asked if the pay could be increased, according to Bickmore.

Chief Harold “Pete” Bickmore is shown Wednesday at the Pittsfield Police Station. Town officials are looking to hire more police officers amid complaints from current officers that the department is short-staffed, leading to safety concerns. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Bickmore approached the Town Council about the pay issue, after which town officials began negotiating with the police union. Bickmore said he was unaware how the negotiations had progressed until the council action Tuesday.

“I went to the town manager and the Town Council and said: ‘I’ve got people here. Is there any way we can raise the pay so it would be closer to what they are currently making?'” Bickmore said Wednesday. “It was a question, and I didn’t get the answer until (Tuesday) night.”

There was disagreement among councilors Tuesday about what the police chief’s role should be in negotiations. Bickmore was included in early “brainstorming” with the town’s negotiating committee, but not involved in negotiations with the union.

Councilor Michael Cianchette said the job description for the police chief indicates he should be on the negotiating committee, but Mayor Heather Donahue said that according to the town’s administrative code, the committee is to include only the mayor, deputy mayor and town manager.

Donahue said Wednesday she had not seen the document Cianchette referenced, but suspected it could be out of date because it did not align with the administrative code.

Bickmore said the new changes are meaningful and he hoped to move forward with hiring qualified officers.

“I have a duty to the citizens to get quality officers,” Bickmore said. “And let’s face it: If we pay really well, we are going to attract good people and we are going to retain good people. I can get anybody to come drive a cruiser, but when you call the police, do you want just anybody to show up at your house?”

Tuesday’s meeting turned combative after Councilor Jason Hall brought up the topic of returning to in-person meetings.

Councilor Amanda Collamore and Cianchette said they wanted in-person gatherings, and the discussion turned argumentative when they asked why the topic had not been included on the meeting’s agenda. The ensuing discussion saw councilors shout over one another for about 45 minutes.

Order was restored after Deputy Mayor Tim Nichols scolded Cianchette and Donahue, who were both attempting to speak, and demanded they be civil and end the “foolishness.”

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