By WIN GRUENING
Local governments build their budgets around adopted lists of priorities and community concerns. While most of us agree that education and to a lesser degree, recreation, parks, and arts are important, ensuring public safety is the No. 1 priority in most Alaskans’ minds.
First responders — police, EMTs, and firefighters — should be considered before other less important “wants” are fully funded.
This is playing out now in a very visible way in our state as rising crime rates, increasing homelessness, and rampant opioid abuse are overwhelming public safety providers.
In Juneau, Mayor Ken Koelsch recognized the urgency of the problem and appointed a public safety task force, choosing Deputy Mayor Jerry Nankervis (a former police captain) to chair it. Their task was to examine the issue and make recommendations to the full Assembly. The final report was recently presented to the Assembly by Nankervis and is available online at juneau.org.
The task force recommendations ranged from staffing changes to drug treatment and diversion programs to possible legislative actions.
VACANCIES EXCEED 20 PERCENT
One of their most important findings was the growing national shortage of persons qualified and interested in serving as sworn police officers. In Juneau, this shortage has led to a critical situation where almost 15 percent of Juneau Police Department (JPD) officer positions are vacant. When subtracting new hires in training, this number exceeds 20 percent.
Even more concerning: eight positions are now eligible for retirement with another eight eligible within five years. During one of the Task Force meetings last November, Deputy Chief David Campbell went so far as to describe these numbers as “starting to get kind of scary.”
JPD has faced similar vacancy levels before, but now they are challenged by a diminished pool of candidates at a time when they should be focused on dealing with an epidemic of property crimes. While JPD is doing an admirable job in meeting their primary mission, this situation has raised stress levels in the department and is overtaxing their existing work force.
Task force members did not evaluate whether a staffing increase is warranted at this time, but strongly recommended increased efforts toward recruitment and retention of police officers to fill vacant slots. When JPD approaches a full complement of sworn officers, it will be easier to determine whether staffing increases are necessary.
NEED TO RECRUIT LOCALLY
Last month, Chief of Police Ed Mercer and members of his staff gave a presentation to the Assembly on their plans to recruit more vigorously throughout the region and local area.
Their rationale for doing this is twofold. First, competition for these candidates among other law enforcement agencies will be less. And second, they believe there are local candidates who may not have considered a career in police work but could be hired and trained more quickly than external candidates. These candidates could be younger, possibly looking for their first or second job. They could also be older, more nontraditional candidates who have no law enforcement experience but are looking for a change and view police work as important and fulfilling.
Alternatively, experienced law enforcement officers in the region and other parts of Alaska may see JPD as a logical next step in broadening their background and career options.
Regardless of their experience level, retention of these individuals is likely to be more assured than individuals recruited outside Alaska.
While many of the ideas noted won’t be expensive to implement, the JPD presentation included other possible changes to improve recruitment and retention, including signing and longevity bonuses, hiring of civilian staff to alleviate officer workload, and an extensive public recruitment campaign in our region and state. These changes, if implemented, would necessarily increase existing budget levels.
Current and past Assembly members have been very supportive of JPD budget requests in the past.
Given Juneau’s escalating levels of crime and drug abuse, these needs shouldn’t be considered discretionary but imperative.
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.