Members of the Anchorage police are trying to do their jobs with 34 fewer sworn officers than were on the payroll in 2009, limiting progress of a plan to increase community policing.
The number of officers peaked at 408 in January of 2009, according to information provided by Chief Mark Mew. That includes recruits in training.
The numbers have been pared down since then through lean city budgets promoted by Mayor Dan Sullivan since he took office four years ago.
In mid-October, the department had 374 officers.
If you discount the recruits until they're fully operational -- which Sullivan says is the best way to look at the statistics -- the number of officers peaked in January of 2010 at 380 and was at 365 at the end of September.
Either way, the declining numbers of officers come at a time when the department's long-term goal is to shift to a more community-based policing approach that calls for adding to the force: assigning officers regularly to the same parts of town and having them participate in community events and neighborhood meetings to learn about and help solve problems.
At current staffing levels, officers are tied up responding to calls to an extent that doesn't allow a lot of proactive policing, Mew said.
To work at its optimal level, the new approach would need 49 more officers, Mew said.
Anchorage Assembly member Paul Honeman, a former police lieutenant and a critic of the Sullivan administration, said the city is not yet headed that direction and needs to be.
"We need to get out of our cars. We need staffing to get out and be proactive in our communities," Honeman said.
Derek Hsieh, president of the police union, said the department is just "getting by" so far during Sullivan's tenure.
"A police department operating at 100 percent all the time is a police department in trouble," Hsieh said. "You cut back on training. I would say we're probably operating near capacity, particularly during the night shifts."
Sullivan said the city is "making good headway" towards community policing, given the resources available.
Most importantly, he said, crime rates are dropping.
A police officer training academy planned next year will allow the force to stay even and maybe get a little ahead, Sullivan said.
What would it take to significantly increase the number of officers?
"I think what it's going to rely on is our administration has to negotiate contracts with all of the employee groups with the recognition that if we really want to increase service, we have to hold the line on expenses," Sullivan said.
He has frequently said that the administration of former Mayor Mark Begich left the city with higher labor costs than it can afford.
The current police contract is up at the end of 2014.
'YOU'RE A MOUNTAIN VIEW PERSON'
In 2010, the city hired a consultant, The Police Executive Research Forum, to advise on how best to organize existing police department staff and how to increase community policing.
Without adding more officers, the consultant said, APD could become more effective by keeping patrol officers on the same assigned beats, with the same sergeant, to build better relationships.
The department has done that, Mew said. A sergeant and his or her officers have the same days off so they're always together.
"You're a Mountain View person. Your people are all about Mountain View. They answer to you and they don't answer to somebody who two days a week is more concerned about Sand Lake," Mew said.
The consultant also recommended holding regular community policing meetings where crime data could be quickly analyzed, goals set and projects launched. It's a model originally developed by the New York Police Department, Mew said, that helps sort out what's important to a specific community like Ocean View or Mountain View, and what it would take to address a particular problem -- a special team or regular beat officers, for example.
That hasn't happened yet, but is the next step, Mew said.
"We can do that with existing staffing. We can do it better when we get to the ... optimum number," he said.
Two other major steps toward community-based policing -- adding a second Community Action Policing Team to address crime and disorder in particular neighborhoods and having patrol officers free to do proactive work about a third of the time -- are held up by lack of staff, Mew said.
The latest study says the appropriate number of officers should be based on workload and policies such as the amount of proactive policing a department wants, not population.
Mew said the Anchorage department would like to have about a third of a patrol officer's time free to do community policing.
"They still answer calls, go to court, etc., but a third of a day is available for proactive work. What are we going to do about homeless people and street drug dealers at 13th and Gamble or 10th and Nelchina? Are we going to do something with the environment? Are we going to do something with the victims? How do we long-term fix the problems?"
Now, about 75 percent of a patrol officer's time is tied up in responding to calls, appearing in court and the like, Mew said.
Sullivan presented two versions of his proposed 2013 operating budget this year. One would have cut 19 vacant positions and 29 filled positions from the police department, wiping out a class of officer recruits who recently completed field training, plus a few more people.
The other version, which the mayor recommended and the Anchorage Assembly is working from, would still cut 19 vacant police jobs, but not filled positions. That's being called "Plan B." The Assembly is scheduled to vote on it Nov. 13.
Since most of about 25 recruits have recently hit the streets, the numbers of officers next year will be roughly the same as this year under Plan B, Mew said.
There would be a police training academy in late 2013 to train and hire replacements.
But there's one big unknown: the number of officers who plan to retire between now and the end of next year. There's an incentive for those eligible to leave before Jan. 5, 2014 -- a result of a deal the union negotiated with the city in 2009 when city revenues plunged.
In mid-2009, the police union gave back 3 percent raises for the rest of the year, with provisions to increase salaries in the out years of their contract. To make it acceptable to officers nearing retirement, the city agreed to give them retroactive payments covering the rollback amount if they leave before Jan. 5, 2014.
Forty-four officers are eligible or will be eligible to retire by the end of 2013, according to the chief's office.
The department surveyed officers anonymously last spring, and 18 said they planned to retire by the end of next year; another 24 said they were considering it.
In a normal year, 18 to 20 officers leave the force, Mew said.
WHICH NUMBERS MATTER?
Sullivan makes the point that the most important numbers are crime statistics, not numbers of employees. "And for three straight years, we've seen a reduction in crime," he said.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report for Anchorage, released in October, showed fewer total crimes were reported in 2011 than in 1981. Serious crimes dropped from 2010 to 2011 except for rapes and burglaries.
"As long as crime statistics are going the right way, which they are, then we're accomplishing what the mission is, which is a safer community," Sullivan said.
"We do want to get more fully into community policing and again, that's strictly a function of resource," he said.
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4340.
By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA