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By David Hench
The Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, Maine - When the South Portland Police Department holds its recruitment night later this month, it will tout new benefits being offered by the city, including officers' eligibility to retire after 25 years at two-thirds of their salary.
That, and the opportunity for veteran officers to be paid for experience elsewhere, are changes made to improve the city's chances of attracting the strongest candidates for its vacant police jobs.
''There is a lot of competition out there,'' said Police Chief Ed Googins. ''We are not unlike other agencies just struggling to get qualified candidates to apply.''
The city's improved compensation package, which also includes pay raises, reflects increased competition among departments regionally to attract and retain good officers as the number of applicants for police jobs drops nationwide.
Police departments in Scarborough and Westbrook are already giving officers the chance to retire after 20 years at half their salary.
Cape Elizabeth recently began offering retirement at two-thirds salary after 25 years on the job.
''We have a consistently dwindling pool of candidates for a job that's becoming increasingly more difficult and demanding,'' said Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, which represents many of the state's police officers.
The increases could have a domino effect, forcing other departments to increase their pay and benefits to avoid losing qualified officers.
Portland officers say the better benefits being offered by other departments in the area will make it harder for the state's largest department to keep the people it has.
''My concern as a sergeant is who is going to run this agency 10 years from now if all the good guys come here, get trained and leave?'' said Sgt. Gary Hutcheson, president of Portland's Superior Officers Association, the union that represents supervisors. ''We're becoming the training ground for all of southern Maine.''
But there are other attributes the Portland department has beyond retirement benefits or even pay scales.
''From the city's perspective, we are competitive,'' said Portland spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. ''We like to think we offer exciting opportunities. You're working in a very vibrant, active city, there are things the city of Portland has to offer that are unique in the state of Maine.''
Westbrook Police Chief William Baker said the work environment can be just as attractive to candidates as retirement opportunities.
''The most important thing is, word gets around in the business that it's a go-to destination, the organizational environment, the work ethic, all of those intangibles,'' he said.
He said that even with accelerated retirement, he has officers with 25 to 30 years on the job and the department has no vacancies.
Officer Jeff Druan said his decision to join the Portland Police Department last year, after he moved to Maine from Massachusetts, was driven by what the city offers a young patrolman.
''It's the largest municipal department in the state, the largest city in the state. The experience, the calls for service, they're great because you get so much experience,'' he said.
With young, qualified officers so hard to find, departments have started pushing for experienced officers, trying to woo officers with a few years under their belts to switch departments.
That was the thrust of a South Portland committee's recommendation late last year that aimed to give preference to veteran candidates. They have the benefit of experience and do not require extensive training before being eligible to patrol on their own.
With an experienced officer, a department is hiring someone who knows the sacrifices of being an officer - night shifts, weekends and the potential for confrontation, said Scarborough Chief Robert Moulton, whose department also has made changes to attract experienced officers.
The South Portland study was done because 20 percent of the department's officers were eligible to retire with two weeks' notice, Googins said.
''The very safety and security of the community depends on having good quality police officers,'' he said.
The improved retirement package won't necessarily increase the chances that experienced officers will retire sooner.
Officers who move to a plan offering earlier retirement or higher retirement pay often have to contribute thousands of dollars to essentially ''buy'' the improved benefit.
The retirement incentives are not just to attract prospective officers.
Giving officers a chance to retire after 20 or 25 years with a healthy retirement income makes it more likely that officers who are not up to the physical demands of the job can afford to step aside.
''There's no one really to tell you when it's time to go,'' said John Gill, president of the union representing Scarborough patrol officers.
''I've seen guys in other departments stick around longer than they should have, guys who have had hip replacements and bypasses and couldn't keep up with demands of the job,'' he said.
Gaspar said departments in southern Maine aren't just competing with each other for strong applicants.
Departments in York County are finding that officers are looking to better retirement offerings in neighboring New Hampshire, one of the reasons Sanford opted a few years ago to allow officers to retire after 20 years, Gaspar said.
The boost in compensation may get officers to switch departments but it isn't likely to spark a return to the days when there were hundreds of applicants for every opening.
''We still view it as kind of a calling,'' said Gaspar. ''If people were taking this job for the money, we'd have a lot less people doing it.''

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