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Understaffed APD still having problems filling its academy

Sean Doogan

The Anchorage Police Department's first police academy of the year has begun, with 23 cadets attending -- five fewer than the department wanted. The shortfall comes after another academy, in the fall of 2013, only had 16 qualified cadets who finished the academy and are amid months of field training.  Police Chief Mark Mew plans to add another academy in October in an effort to fill his ranks.

Currently, there are 327 sworn and fully-trained police officers in Anchorage, according to Mew. Adding 16 officers in field training and the 23 training academy cadets brings the number of sworn police officers in Anchorage to 366. Even if all 39 make it through the rest of their training -- and nobody else leaves the department this year -- the number of cops in Anchorage will still be short of the 375 sworn officers recommended by the 2010 Police Executive Research Forum report, and the 372 positions that the department currently has budgeted.

To keep the number of patrol officers up, APD has used overtime and reduced the size of many specialty departments, including its detective divisions. Through attrition, retirement, or reassignment, 33 positions from its 12 detective divisions have been lost since 2010. The biggest cuts have come from the vice squad, which lost six officers, the traffic unit (seven) and the special assignments unit (eight).

"I don't want to get out of proportion where we have relatively large specialty units, but a small patrol force," Mew said. "I want to balance the numbers."

But not filling academies is a concern for a police department that has been shrinking since it hit a high of 380 sworn officers in 2010. Changes to the application and physical agility test for new recruits have helped boost the number of people making it to the end of the recruitment process and into the training academy. But the union that represents Anchorage's police officers said it believes the department's pay and benefit structure -- which was changed along with the structure for all other Alaska public employees in 2005 by the Alaska Legislature -- is a factor, leading to fewer recruits and prompting some APD officers to leave for more lucrative jobs in other cities.

"We recently lost three senior officers to a department in Lower 48 that gave them credit for their APD service in their new pension plan," said Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. "Our employees are receiving very generous lateral offers."

Chief Mew disagrees that salary and benefits have contributed to the current low number of officers on the streets. Mew said he wasn't sure what was driving the low numbers, but points to a larger-than-usual attrition of about 40 officers in 2013 -- double the normal annual loss.

In May of 2009, then-Mayor Matt Claman got contract concessions from the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. Those concessions -- about 3 percent in benefits and salary cuts -- came with a caveat: An officer who retired from the force before Jan. 1, 2014 would get those concessions back. It was a deal worth thousands of dollars per year in retirement benefits to some veteran Anchorage police officers.

"Our problem in 2013 and 2014 did not appear to be a budget problem. It was a problem of the extra attrition and the double whammy of having that 16-person academy (in the fall of 2013) and the lower numbers of people coming in, but the pay and benefits during that period of time grew, so I don't know that that's the issue," Mew said.

Regardless of how we got here, Mew said he's committed to filling his ranks. And when he gets the department up to the 375 mark, Mew hopes to get enough funding to add even more -- possibly as many as 26. That would reduce the amount of time patrol officers spend responding to calls. More officers would allow those on duty to spend as much as 30 percent of their time unobligated, he said, transforming APD into a proactive police force.

"If you are checking calls all night, and the only break you get is writing up police reports from the call you were just on, we are a reactive force," Mew said.

As for the smaller-than-wanted police academy, Mew noted that enough people made it through all of the stages of applications, background checks, physical and psychological testing that he could have hired the 28 new officers the department wanted. However, Mew rejected several applicants because he had misgivings about their reliability, work history, or other personality traits -- things that might not disqualify them during the normal hiring process.

And, despite not filling up the academy, that is a practice with which the local police union agrees.

"Because the most important thing at the end of the day is that the chief of police picks the right people," Hsieh said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Anchorage Police Department was considering another police academy this fall.  Police Chief Mark Mew says there will be a fall academy. 

Reach Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4200.


By SEAN DOOGAN
sean@alaskadispatch.com