By NEIL ZAWICKI

Milton Police Chief Steve Laroche is looking for a qualified candidate to fill a vacancy due to an officer retiring from his already lean force.  

And the search hasn’t been easy.

Not only is the vetting process for police academy candidates less-than-simple, Laroche said departments nationwide have had trouble recruiting new officers.

“It has been a real challenge for us to find someone,” he said. “We haven’t been getting the volume of applicants that we have in the past. It’s actually extremely low.”

Laroche said just 10 years ago he would get 50 applicants for just one opening. Today, that number is around 10. To make matters worse, he said commonly a department will have to go through 20 applicants to find just one person who qualifies.

“The math doesn’t work,” he said. At that rate, he’ll have to go through two rounds of hiring just to find someone, and then that person will have to pass a physical fitness test (one candidate recently washed out of training at that phase) and then complete 16 weeks of academy training, followed by a couple months of specialty and weapons training. And then there’s the training period at the department. The last time he hired someone, Laroche said it took more than 18 months just to find a successful candidate.

Meanwhile, with Milton’s population creeping toward 12,000, the department, which has 16 cops, should by national standards employ two officers per thousand residents. Laroche knows getting to 24 officers is not realistic. So his officers are policing with the 16, with a new hire very far over the horizon.

“We’re managing, let’s put it that way,” he said. “But our call logs are way up.”

The department is also offering a $10,000 signing bonus to any certified officer willing to transfer to Milton. At the same time, Laroche said his department is competing for the light pool of applicants with nearly every other agency in Vermont. He cites a healthy economy for the drop in interest, as well as negative media coverage of police work, as two factors contributing to the problem.

Laroche also said there’s a perception that becoming an officer is harder than it actually is. Specifically, people with not-so-clean pasts feel they might not make the cut. But Laroche wants people to know he’s not looking for perfection.

“We just want honesty,” he said. “You don’t need to be squeaky clean.”

Further, Laroche said the number of vacancies in law enforcement makes for good leverage for people considering the profession.

“If you’ve ever wanted to be an officer, now’s the time to get in,” he said.