Longer 911 hold times, backlogs, officer delays: When Anchorage hires more cops, but not more support staff

The clerks who manage records and evidence at the Anchorage Police Department say they're increasingly overwhelmed with paperwork as the department has added roughly 100 new police officers in three years without hiring additional support staff.

Meanwhile, amid a spike in property crime, Anchorage residents have been inundating police dispatchers with calls. But there have been severe staffing shortfalls in the dispatch department, with about half the seats in a new dispatch center unfilled.

[$45 million in property was stolen in Anchorage last year. This year is worse]

That means the public is spending more time on hold when calling 911 or when dialing a non-emergency number to file stolen vehicle reports. Empty dispatch jobs may mean a delay in an officer showing up to a crime.

"Cops can't respond to calls if there's nobody answering the phone," said Brian Wilson, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Union, in a June interview.

Pressed by police officials and some city Assembly members, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said it aims to beef up other parts of the police department, to balance the hiring of significantly more officers since Berkowitz took office in 2015.

Millions have been spent on the hirings. But it's not yet clear where the money for more support staff will come from. The dispatchers and records clerks the managers are asking for could cost about $600,000 in salaries. The Berkowitz administration will propose its budget for the next year in September, and city manager Bill Falsey said adding support staff will be mixed in with other priorities.


Some of it fits into APD's proposal to move its headquarters to the former Legislative Information Center downtown: While dispatch seats are empty, managers in the records department said that even if they got the go-ahead to hire more people, they wouldn't immediately have a place to put them.

If the headquarters do move, the dispatch, records and evidence units will stay on Elmore Road and expand into rooms now occupied by detectives and administrators.

More calls, fewer people 

In 2015, the police department fielded about about 398,000 phone calls. In 2016 and 2017, that number was up to around 440,000, in part because of a dramatic spike in non-emergency calls as property crime skyrocketed.

But for now, a brand-new, $1.2 million dispatch center at the current APD headquarters on Elmore Road sits half empty. Turnover, in part linked to retirements and burnout, resulted in as many as eight dispatcher vacancies at once this year. That's for a staff of 33, according to Amy Foraker, the dispatch manager. Her staff also includes four call-takers, who take 911 calls but don't dispatch police.

Three new dispatchers were just hired, and three more are in training, but the training takes about a year to complete, Foraker said. She has additional vacancies for two dispatchers and two call-takers.

While it can be rewarding work — dispatchers call themselves the "first first responders" — the shifts are long and stressful, Foraker said.

As call volumes increase but staffing dwindles, callers will have to wait longer to speak with a dispatcher, said Karren Symonds, dispatch supervisor.

This year, the average wait time for 911 calls in Anchorage is about 15 seconds. Three years ago, it was about 11 seconds on average, according to data provided by the police department.

A national standard calls for 90 percent of an agency's 911 calls to be answered in 10 seconds or less.

Data on the wait times for 311 calls, current and historic, was not immediately available. But Symonds said the wait can be at least several minutes or more.

There will never be enough call-takers to keep the lines from being tied up when there's a 10-car pileup on the Glenn Highway or a big SWAT incident, Foraker said. But she said her unit needs more people to keep up with the day-to-day call load.

The starting salary for a call taker, who takes 911 calls but does not dispatch police, is $53,664; a new dispatcher makes $64,022.

Foraker said she's hoping to fill the vacant jobs soon. She also hopes the city will add at least five more positions to her unit — it's been about a decade since her staff grew, she said. She said she's confident she can fill the jobs but acknowledged it's a profession that can be tough to sell to people, especially now.

"It doesn't help that we're severely short-staffed," Foraker said.

Records clerks try to keep up

Meanwhile, officials say the city's efforts to hire significantly more cops has strained the units that process and classify police reports. The city's evidence unit is also strained, with a spike in vehicle thefts leading to more evidence being processed.


Jennifer Leneave, the records manager, said in a June interview that her section has been swamped with paperwork. There are more citations and more arrest reports than ever before. It's been more noticeable the past six months, Leneave said.

She said she and her employees love their jobs and feel they're helping police focus on things other than paperwork. But staffing has changed little in 11 years. The backlog has been growing, which affects customer service, she said.

"Every time you add an officer, you're adding hours of work to the non-sworn side," Leneave said.

Her unit has also been flooded with reports about stolen vehicles, which have hit records levels this year.

According to data provided by APD, the wait time for processing reports has gone from 10 minutes in 2010 to 30 minutes or more. Sometimes citizens have to be on hold 45 minutes to file a stolen vehicle report, Leneave said.

"By no means is it not important to us," Leneave said. "It's just because of staffing and the size where we're at."

Leneave said she'd like to see an additional 10 people added to her division, between clerks and classifiers, to speed up things. The starting salary for a records clerk is about $44,000.

But even if Leneave gets the money, she doesn't have anywhere to put people right now. Her unit is crammed into offices, some improvised from closets, behind the front counter of the current police headquarters on Elmore Road.


That could change if APD gets approval to move into the former Legislative Information Office in downtown Anchorage. Leneave's unit would stay in the Elmore building but would get more space, officials said.

Police want better perceptions on call response

Symonds, the dispatch supervisor, said she hears a common complaint: "I called the police, and they didn't come out."

But police do come out, Symonds said. There just may be an hour delay or more, depending on the nature of the call and whether there are more urgent emergencies happening that day, she said.

This past week, police announced a new tactic: Door hangers that let a caller know an officer arrived to investigate.

The dispatchers will ask callers if they want an officer to contact them, said police spokesman MJ Thim. Some people may say no, wanting to stay anonymous.

For those who do want contact but can't stay around, the police will try to leave a door hanger, Thim said. The cards will include information like the name of the responding officer and what the outcome of the call was.

Thim said the idea wasn't inspired by a specific program elsewhere. He said police officials were just brainstorming what they could do to close the loop with callers.

"It's for people who want to know, 'Did you answer my call?'" Thim said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.