For the first time, the Portland Police Department will consider new officer recruits who are non-citizens and recent marijuana users – people who had been automatically disqualified in the past.
Non-citizen officer candidates can qualify as long as they have been granted a permanent right to work in the United States. Applicants who have recently used marijuana will be considered on a case-by-case basis, the department said in a release.
The changes in Portland are among several initiatives to fill vacant jobs at a time when police departments in Maine and around the country are struggling to recruit new officers. The softening of hiring policies came about after the City Council recently approved several updates to Portland’s Civil Service ordinance.
“It was an incredibly antiquated document that not only didn’t match what we were doing, but (did not match) our needs,” Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said.
Sauschuck said that for years the city would automatically disqualify candidates who had used drugs, including marijuana, during the five years before their application. That standard has been relaxed with applicants now being considered on a case by case basis in context with a candidate’s entire background.
“There was a five-year hard line that automatically eliminated you from the hiring process,” Sauschuck said in an interview. “I want to look at frequency and recency stuff. If you smoke a joint in a parking lot before you come in to take a test, it’s probably not going to go good.”
Allowing non-citizen applicants also was an outdated holdover. Sauschuck said other agencies, including the Maine State Police and the Portland Fire Department, allow non-citizen applicants with permanent work status.
Mayor Ethan Strimling said he fully supports the changes affecting non-citizens and candidates who have used marijuana.
“I’ve never been a believer that mistakes a person made in the past should hinder that person from getting a job,” Strimling said. “I hope this will bring in more officers. We have the best police department in the state of Maine.”
The city of South Portland is looking to fill two full-time police officer positions so that the candidates can attend the police officer training academy in August. Lt. Frank Clark said his department has done away with the five-year marijuana-use rule as well.
Clark said South Portland gets a lot of candidates who are fresh out or college or in their early 20s. It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t at least smoked pot occasionally.
“(Marijuana use) is only a sliver of what is looked at,” Clark said. “The totality of a candidate’s qualifications are more important.”
Robert M. Schwartz, who served as executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, has opposed past efforts to legalize marijuana, but said the changes proposed by Portland make sense to him.
“The people you get today, who want to become a police officer, very seldom will you find someone who has not tried marijuana,” Schwartz said. “It has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.”
Portland police also announced Wednesday that they are dedicating an existing officer to be a full-time recruiter and are increasing cash bonuses for employees who bring in new recruits.
Officer Kate Phelan is the department’s new recruitment officer. Phelan will concentrate on recruiting at schools, universities and meetings, and on social media.
The new more-relaxed qualification standards were part of a broader rewrite of the city’s civil service ordinance passed in February that governs a range of police officer and firefighter hiring policies that were described as “badly outdated” in a letter Sauschuck sent to the city council.
Removing the marijuana prohibition reflects a larger shift in attitudes toward the drug, including a 2012 referendum in which city voters made the largely symbolic gesture of declaring it legal for adults to use marijuana recreationally. Portland was the first Maine city to do so, and four years later, voters statewide followed suit in November 2016.
Portland is not alone in its loosening its pot policy. The United States Army is granting more waivers for new recruits who have smoked pot, according to the Army Time. Other police departments, including in some cities in Colorado, Maryland and elsewhere, are following suit.
Altering citizenship requirements also comes at a time when Portland police are facing the additional challenge of hiring new officers from the growing immigrant and refugee communities they often must police.
The struggle to staff police departments has been called a national crisis and is widely considered to be the result of relatively low pay, rigorous physical demands and the possibility of getting killed on duty, all while their conduct is under intense public scrutiny. Some departments in other states also have been easing hiring standards, including by forgiving some prior drug use. There is no national hiring standard for police officers, but prior drug use or past brushes with the law have historically rendered candidates ineligible.
A number of police departments in Maine also have stepped up recruiting efforts and now are offering bonuses, sometimes competing for the same pool of prospective officers.
For the second year in a row, the Portland Police Department has not spent all of it salary budget, but is overspending on overtime, said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.
The new and revised policies will be incorporated into the department’s second year of a hiring blitz. In a statement issued Wednesday, the city said it would continue to offer a $10,000 signing bonus for new officers, and would increase the bounty it pays to current police employees who help recruit a new officer to $3,000 from $2,000.
Last May, Sauschuck announced a $10,000 signing bonus for up to 10 new police recruits. That effort brought nine police recruits and six dispatchers, who are in the process of receiving the bonuses in installments paid after recruits reach training benchmarks. For police officers, the first $2,500 is paid at their swearing in, a second $2,500 is released after completion of the state police academy and 14 weeks of training in the field in Portland. The remaining $5,000 is disbursed after two years of employment.
Dispatchers receive $2,500 on their first day of employment, $2,500 after completing a six-month field training program, and $5,000 after two years on the job.
Both officers and dispatchers who sign up for the bonus agree to repay the money if they leave before reaching five years of employment.
In 2017, new officers averaged an annual salary of $54,000 plus benefits, and the city recently agreed to union contracts that will give all sworn officers a 10 percent raise over the next three years.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: