Shrinking ranks of Anchorage police force expected to get worse

The thin blue line of Anchorage police officers who patrol the streets of Alaska's largest city is getting skinnier. The number of sworn officers working for the Anchorage Police Department has dropped steadily since hitting a high of 380 three years ago. That's the level of sworn positions -- badge and gun-carrying officers -- recommended by a 2010 study done for the city by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Stockton, Calif., which is about the same size as Anchorage, has 331 sworn officers in its police department. The city is still suffering from massive economic failures after declaring bankruptcy in June 2012, forcing Stockton to cut back its police force. City leaders there are trying to fund as many as 361 positions, as its police battle increased crime that has led to the city being declared the nation's eighth most-dangerous.

Today, 343 police officers are on the force in Anchorage. Soon there will be fewer.

Fewer than 350 officers?

The Anchorage Police Department is expecting to lose up to 40 police officers this year. It has already seen 30 leave its ranks. Only 16 people are in training to replace them. Usually only 50 percent of cadets make it to the streets as officers. That means there will likely be between 330 and 350 officers working in Anchorage over the next few years – dozens fewer than what's recommended by the PERF report.

"I would like it to be higher, but I don't think it's time to push the panic button," Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said.

Usually, the department sees an average of 20 officers leave each year -- through retirement, transferring to other police departments, or quitting the force. But in May of 2009, then-Mayor Matt Claman got contract concessions from the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association (APDEA). Those concessions -- about 3 percent in benefits and salary cuts -- came with a caveat: if an officer retired from the force before January 2014, they would get the concessions back, concessions worth thousands of dollars per year in retirement benefits to some veteran Anchorage police officers. Both the police employees' association and the mayor's office believe about 20 people will take advantage of the offer and retire earlier than they might have otherwise. That suggests that APD may lose 40 police officers this year.

A new police academy -- the first in two years -- is set to begin. But there are only 16 cadets in training, and it will take up to 18 months to get the newbies ready to work on their own. The usual graduation rate for Anchorage police cadets is about 50 percent, according to Chief Mew. Consequently, Anchorage's police force is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger.


Why no police academies for two years?

Back in 2007 and 2008, two police academies a year cranked out dozens of new officers. But there was no academy and no new officers the next two years -- and just one in 2011 that graduated 29 cadets. An academy was cancelled in 2009, shortly after Mayor Dan Sullivan took office, as part of millions in city spending cuts across the city.

"There were no academies in 2009 because of the financial challenges facing the city," said Mayor Sullivan. The Mayor said financial difficulties also prevented the city from hosting academies in 2010, and 2012.

The result of the staffing crunch is that more police officers have been taken from detective and specialty work and put on patrol. That means fewer officers in the Anchorage Traffic Unit, which, according to the city's treasury department, has written 35 percent fewer tickets each of the last two years.

It also means there are fewer officers to work property-related crimes.

Opinions vary as to why the current academy class of 16 is far smaller than the 28-30 police cadets the city wanted.

Salary doesn't appear to be one of them. The median salary of all Anchorage police officers for 2013 was about $58,000.

"The pay for Anchorage Police officers is good, but the big thing is morale is really bad," said retired APD lieutenant and former spokesman Dave Parker. "It makes it hard to recruit."

The APDEA said it believes recent proposals to tighten the city's union contracting rules, combined with a reduction in retirement benefits keeps people away. All Anchorage police officers contribute to, and get benefits from, the state's retirement system -- the Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS. In 2006, the State of Alaska changed the PERS retirement package from one with defined benefits -- i.e., a pension -- to one with defined contributions (401k). The police employees association said that change is a big reason people who want to become police officers look first at other cities as a place to start or continue a career.

Problems with application process

Mayor Sullivan and Chief Mew believe the application process itself may be to blame. While the number of people applying has risen in recent years, the number of people who make it to the second phase of the employment process is dropping.

Applications initially go through an administrative review at city hall. They include the results of the applicants' video and reading comprehension test. In 2013, 1,165 people applied to be an Anchorage police officer, but just 774 of them, about 66 percent, made it to the second phase -- psychological, polygraph, and fitness testing. In 2011 -- the last time Anchorage police accepted applications for a police academy -- 87 percent made it to the second phase of the application process. The numbers were similar in 2007, and 2008.

"We have been washing them out at a higher rate," Mew said. "I'm not sure we have yet figured out why."

One theory is that the old video test is too out of date for today's tech-savvy generation. It is supposed to measure a person's prioritization skills. Mew worries that it may be eliminating otherwise-good officers.

"There is a new generation of young people and they think differently," Mew said. A new online test is being offered for the second academy planned for next year. Mew said he hopes the new test will better measure potential officers' abilities and weaknesses.

And, since it's available online, it may attract more applicants.

"We may be able to get more people to take the test online because they now don't have to come to Anchorage for a proctored test, very early in the process, which can be an expensive proposition for people living outside Anchorage and Alaska," Mew said.

Failures of the review process

Other changes -- some the result of the department's biggest failures -- have been made to the application and background review process.

In April 2011, Anchorage Police officer Rafael Espinoza was charged with passport fraud. Espinoza, whose real surname was Mora-Lopez, entered the country illegally and worked for six years as an APD officer after stealing the identity of his Mexican neighbor.


Later that same year, APD suffered another public scandal after veteran officer Anthony Rollins was convicted of sexually abusing five women -- often while in uniform and on duty. Rollins is currently serving an 85-year sentence in federal prison.

APD began a complete review of its hiring policies after 2011. "During that review, we went back and looked a lot of our failures -- people who, for whatever reason, just didn't work out --to see if there were any commonalities. We asked: How did the process let them in?" said Mew.

As a result of the Lopez and Rollins investigations, changes were made to the polygraph test and background check on applicants, Mew said. Chief Mew would not detail what those changes were, but said none of the changes to the polygraph test and background check were likely leading to the drop in people who pass through APD's application process, he added.

Mew said the city will get more aggressive in hiring by scheduling more academies, while reaching out to a larger employment pool. In addition to the current Anchorage police academy, the Municipality hopes to have one or two more next year.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)

Correction: This article originally stated that there would be as few as 320 police officers in Anchorage next year; it should be 330 and 350. Mew told the Alaska Dispatch on Tuesday, that 30 officers had already left the department this year, and he expects only about 10 more to leave by the end of the year.

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.