Colonel Patrick Fleming, the chief of state police, says that it's been about 20 years since there's been this many vacancies. "What's causing this is that we had two classes that were hired back-to-back in 1986 so they're starting to now cycle out to their retirement."
They're the first set of troopers subject to a rule that sets retirement eligibility at 25 years of service. The cut-off used to be 20 years, but not everybody retired at once. Fleming says in comparison, those who have been working for 25 years are more ready to leave the high-stress job.
Fleming says it's hard to get ahead of the problem because Maine law does not allow him to hire a trooper unless one leaves--and then it takes about a year to select and train a recruit. "It's not like when someone retires, we can just hire somebody the next day and put somebody to work--that's what is creating this problem."
There are about 299 troopers working now. Fleming says that supervisors are using overtime and managing vacations to keep up staffing levels--without overworking the troopers. "First and foremost is to make sure that they're safe when they're out there and that they're getting home at their end of their shift to their families."
But even with the juggling of schedules, there are fewer troopers on the road. Of the 27 openings, seven were vacated by uniformed troopers on the road. That, Fleming says, means fewer troopers to do traffic enforcement and respond to calls.
"There are implications for safety anytime you cut back," says State Rep. Anne Haskell, a Democrat from Portland who co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. "There will be calls that won't be answered, that's for sure. And this is in a department that works really hard to do absolutely everything that they can. It's not as easy as it sounds."
Haskell says that legislators saw this wave of retirements coming, and would have liked to add staffing but have been hamstrung by a tight budget. Fleming says an application for federal monies to add five people was rejected.
An official at the American Association of State Troopers says state police around the country are always short of troopers but thought that Maine's wave of trooper retirements may be an issue unique to the state.
On the bright side, Fleming says he hopes to get 20 to 25 people trained by mid-summer. He's getting interest from people who see state police work as a second career and from out of-of-staters. "I've interviewed applicants from Massachusetts, from Virginia, actually there's one from California."
As to exactly how many state police will retire this year, that remains to be seen. Fleming says as much as some may be ready to leave the force, the slow economy may not allow them to.