Officer departures, recruiting shortfall challenge APD, chief says

nherz@adn.comSeptember 30, 2013 

The Anchorage Police Department is anticipating a staffing shortfall next year, which could lead to delays in its responses to low-priority 911 calls, downsizing of specialized units like detectives and traffic enforcement, and steeper overtime costs, according to Chief Mark Mew.

Mew stressed that the department had not determined exactly which approach it would take, or that all would be necessary.

"But those are the logical possibilities," he said.

A small recruiting class and dozens of officers leaving the department this year mean that the number of sworn officers in 2014 will likely hover between 335 and 350, Mew said -- below his target of 375.

"Our attrition is higher, and our recruiting is not as productive," he said in an interview Thursday. "We got the double whammy this year."

Mayor Dan Sullivan said that his focus is on results, not staffing, and he pointed to statistics that show declines in serious crime for the three years ending in 2011, the latest for which data are available.

Sullivan pointed out that the total number of crimes reported in Anchorage in 2011 was lower than it was in 1981, despite a population that's grown by 100,000 people.

"What we look at is really not so much how many people are doing what, but what are the results of what they're doing?" he said. "There's no magic number. It's a range. And the chief has pretty significant resources at his disposal to realign, to reassign, and make sure his department is accomplishing what its mission is."

The department's staffing boils down to inputs and outputs.

To balance attrition, the department needs to run a police training academy annually, ideally starting with a class of 28, according to Mew. A few recruits typically drop out, and those who are left end up replacing the roughly 20 officers who leave each year, Mew said.

This year, however, only 19 officers are set to begin the department's next training academy, which starts in early November. The department hasn't held one in almost two years, and the last one it planned was dropped out of the budget, Mew said.

At the same time, officers are "flooding for the door," Mew said at an Assembly committee meeting in September. Already this year, 32 have left the department, or have said they're planning to leave, and Mew said that an additional seven officers are expected to depart by the end of the year, Mew said.

What's behind the "double whammy," as Mew put it? It depends on whether you ask the chief, or the city's police union.

There's no dispute that officers are leaving the department. But Mew and union president Derek Hsieh offered competing explanations why.

Mew says that a quirk in the police union's contract is driving the departures: a bonus paid to veteran officers if they retire before early January. That incentive stems from concessions negotiated in 2009, when the city had a revenue shortfall.

Of the roughly 40 expected departures, eight are not retirees, Mew said

"Anybody who's got 20 years on, you're a fool if you don't leave," Mew said at the committee meeting. "That's really the reason."

Hsieh, however, says that poor working conditions and low compensation are the driving force behind the departures.

Anchorage police officers don't get pensions, face increased workloads, and are apprehensive about the impact of the controversial collective-bargaining law passed by the Assembly earlier this year, though it's currently suspended pending the outcome of a referendum.

"Numbers are in freefall for the same reasons that employees leave any organization," Hsieh said in an email.

Hsieh added that the same factors were also behind the department's recruiting numbers.

Mew, however, said the department was revisiting a screening test that its recruiters suspect is outdated. The test is video based, with multiple choice questions, and Mew said it rejects about 50 percent of candidates -- a number the department thinks could be too high.

"We are aware of some really sharp candidates that can't seem to pass it," he said at the committee meeting.

APD is now shifting to a new computer based test that Mew described as "more modern." The company that administers it, IO Solutions, also works with police departments in the Lower 48, and it allows aspiring officers there to apply for jobs in Anchorage, Mew said, which could boost numbers. (It also could mean Anchorage applicants get hired by Outside departments, Mew acknowledged.)

Mew said that APD plans to hold another training academy starting in the first half of next year, and he's interested in running a second one in 2014, though probably with fewer recruits.

Sullivan said that Mew had not asked for funding for a second academy in his budget, but he added that that "could be an option."

"The bottom line is, we see the employment trend, going forward, and we're going to be very active with our academies," Sullivan said.

The department currently has about 350 sworn officers, and the department hasn't seen any data this year that shows problems stemming from staffing levels, Mew said.

The department's latest performance report, from the second quarter of the year, shows no significant change in the length of time it takes for 911 calls to be answered, or for police to respond to the calls. Mew acknowledged that those numbers don't show how long it takes for each call to be assigned to an officer.

Ernie Hall, the Assembly's chairman and a member of the public safety committee, said he was watching the department's staffing closely.

"Maybe we're going to be okay, but we're getting to the point where I've got a concern. I don't like to see the numbers down at that level," he said in an interview. "It's something I've got my eye on."

Duane Udland, Anchorage's police chief from 1997 to 2001, said that there's always a tension between what the public wants out of its police, and how large a staff the city budget can bear. He cautioned, however, that the department's numbers can be difficult rebuild if they get too low.

"You get too far behind the power curve, and it takes you years to catch up," he said in an interview. "The recruiting's tough -- there's no question about it."

Udland also acknowledged that discussions about public safety staffing can often pit unions, who tend to advocate for higher numbers, against management, who are bound by budgeting constraints -- and he added that it's not always easy to tell who's right.

The union leaders, Udland said, are "very strong advocates for their employees.

"They're professionals, and they care very much about service to the public, and quality policing," he said. "When it comes down to the budget battle, they're credible. But so is the perspective of the mayor."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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