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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
As a nationwide officer shortage continues to plague U.S. police departments, the Ketchikan Police Department is striving to refill its ranks and to maintain quality services.
Come February, KPD will be down five police officers, relative to a full staff of 23 officers. Those five empty positions include vacancies from officers that have quit or retired, as well those that are temporarily away for training or military leave.
Fewer officers has meant a possible delay in responses to non-emergency calls, according to KPD Chief Joe White. It also means that officers are sometimes overworked.
“It’s a strain,” White said in November. “By all means, it’s a strain. And each officer has to pick up a little bit more of the load.”
Each KPD officer has been responding to more calls, handling more cases and working overtime. This past year, officials like White, Assistant Chief Eric Mattson, and Lt. Andy Berntson have filled in on patrol shifts to ease the load.
“We do the best we can with what we have,” Berntson said. “And I think we’ve got a good group of people now that are working real hard to try to still maintain that level of service, with not having full staff. It’s just a constant battle of trying to do everything day to day with fewer bodies to do it.”
So far, the department has managed to avoid cutting any of its services. And it’s able to maintain short emergency response times by calling out off-duty officers when the officers on duty are busy, White said.
“If you call the police department, barring something totally crazy going on at that moment, you should have an officer within five minutes,” White said. “... If everybody’s tied up on a call and an emergency comes in, we call out officers. Within a few minutes, we can have two or three guys on the road going to a call.”
KPD hasn’t always struggled to recruit and retain officers. White said that when he joined the department in 1996, it had received 85 applications for five open positions.
That application volume began to trickle off about a decade ago, White said. And in the past five years, applicants have become even more scarce.
“When we do a test process, we might have three or four show up to test,” White said. “So I don’t know. It’s just a different time, I think.”
KPD was hit hard in 2018. It began the year short staffed, and lost four additional officers to retirement and other departments over the course of the year. On top of the staff shortage, the year also required work on an unusually high volume of serious criminal cases, including three murder cases.
A national issue
Throughout the U.S., recruitment and retention difficulties for police departments have come to a head in the past two to three years, according to Richard Myers, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“We’re certainly in one of those cycles now where there’s a need for a lot of police candidates across the country,” Myers said on Monday. “But the pool of available and qualified candidates has shrunk significantly. As a result, police departments all over the country are competing for a very tiny pool of candidates.”
The number of full-time police officers in the U.S. fell from about 725,000 in 2013 to about 701,000 in 2016, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice. The ratio of full-time officers to the total U.S. population has also steadily declined over the past two decades.
The shortage has several causes. According to Myers, the shortage has been exacerbated by more critical perceptions of law enforcement in recent years, sparked in part by a national focus on police misconduct. And a stronger job market has meant more competition from other potential employers.
Myers added that young people today change jobs more often than previous generations. This is problematic for police departments because finding and training qualified police officers is time consuming and expensive.
The shortage has affected other Alaska police departments as well, with both the Alaska State Troopers and other municipal police departments experiencing significant vacancies. The troopers in Ketchikan are currently fully staffed, however, due to the way they happen to be distributed regionally, an AST representative told the Daily News last week.
Ketchikan’s unique circumstances
In Ketchikan, the shortage has a number of unique, local causes, as well.
Ketchikan’s weather and geographic isolation can deter would-be applicants, according to local officials. The issue isn’t unique to the police department — other local employers like Ketchikan Public Utilities and the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center have been experiencing similar recruitment and retention difficulties.
“Ketchikan, like any other community, has its specific challenges,” City Manager Karl Amylon told the Daily News in November. “We are off the beaten path, so to speak. Your only access to Ketchikan is by plane or by boat. And it’s not like you can drive down to Seattle or drive to Juneau or drive to Anchorage. Some people would view that as a real negative. Others don’t.”
White said some recruits see Ketchikan as a quiet, sleepy town, and are then surprised by crime levels and the strain of the job.
“It’s a very demanding job,” White said. “It’s nights. It’s weekends. It’s holidays. You’re missing kids’ sporting events. You’re missing parent-teacher conferences. You give up a lot to do this job. And so I think some people don’t realize the level of sacrifice when they come in the door. … Maybe some people see some of the sides of Ketchikan that they didn’t expect to see or they didn’t think was there.”
The shortage has budgetary implications as well. KPD surpassed its overtime budget in both 2017 and 2018 because of staff shortages and a heavy workload.
KPD has a number of plans in place to address the issue.
The department has expanded its recruitment efforts to incorporate job fairs, online advertising, social media, open houses, and engaging with high school students, particularly those in their senior year.
It’s also striving to further improve its relationship with the community in general. Recent outreach efforts include increased social media activity, a #lipsyncchallenge2018 video, a Coffee with a Cop event, a Shop with a Cop event, and the Citizen’s Academy program.
“We’re trying different things to get the community to see us in a different light and maybe be more excited about coming down and trying it out,” White said.
In October, the Ketchikan City Council hired consultants to conduct a compensation study for all city positions, including KPD officers. The results of the study are still out, and it is not yet known whether the study will lead to a compensation change for police officers.
White said he’s optimistic about KPD’s ability to fill its current vacancies in the coming months. However, the recruitment process isn’t likely to end there.
“Honestly, I think we’re going to be in a constant state of recruitment. I just do,” White said. “I’m looking at Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage, the State Troopers — most mid- to large-sized departments are in a constant state. … I think if you get fully staffed you’re not going to stay fully staffed for long.”