Anchorage

Anchorage still needs dozens of new officers for ideal police force, study says

An updated study recommends the Anchorage Police Department expand its ranks of sworn officers to 446, the same number encouraged five years ago by the original report.

"The important thing to remember with the report is it's a set of recommendations, and from these recommendations it tells us we're on the right track," said Anchorage police Chief Chris Tolley, referring to a series of police academies in the past year and revamped recruitment efforts.

Tolley said a more realistic goal is growing the force from the current 365 sworn officers to 400, a figure Mayor Ethan Berkowitz put forward in his election campaign. Berkowitz said his initial target is achievable and was based in part on recommendations from the 2010 report.

The new report encourages the city to try and reach the 446-officer mark in three years.

The Police Executive Research Forum, commonly called the PERF report, compares police numbers to officers' workloads and proposes an optimal staffing level. The update to the report cost $17,000, paid for by the police department.

Among the goals of the increased staffing is allowing officers more time to engage in community policing. The approach is broadly defined as officers spending part of their shifts engaging with residents and getting to know the neighborhoods they patrol, using fewer hours to respond to calls.

Currently, the majority of policing in Anchorage is responsive, said Gerard Asselin, president of Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. Officers want more time to engage residents under positive circumstances, he said.

Data in the new report suggests the police department is responding to roughly the same number of calls for service and officers are spending similar amounts of time on the calls as they were in 2010.

As a result, the total number of officers needed to have 40 percent "unobligated time" to practice community policing hasn't changed. In 2010, the recommendation was increasing the number of sworn officers to 447.

By last year, the amount of unobligated time for officers dropped from 27.4 percent to 26.1 percent. Officers spend most of their workdays responding to calls, doing paperwork and engaging in self-initiated police work, such as acting on suspicious behavior and pulling over drivers for traffic violations.

APD would now have to hire 67 patrol positions and 10 investigators to meet the goal, the study says. Fifty-eight positions were needed when the original report was released.

The staffing goal is based on the number of positions in November 2015, the latest data used in the report. The department had 512 positions at that time -- 369 sworn officers and 143 civilian staff.

As of Wednesday, the police department had 365 sworn officers. That includes 17 cadets training in the field and 17 going through a police academy, Chief Tolley said.

"Whether it's 400 or more, it doesn't happen overnight," Tolley said. "The academies stopped for some time, so there's a growing process. We can't just turn the faucet back on."

The mayor also noted the erosion of the force caused by three years without academies.

"Police staffing levels fell far below what's acceptable," Berkowitz said, and that the absence of police academies for several years created a false economy. The previous administration believed it was saving money, he said, but the shrinking police department created long-term costs as its infrastructure now needs to be rebuilt.

The report's three-year staffing goal is a solid target for the police department and city, but the higher number is a moving target, Berkowitz said. It may change based on the economy and population, among other factors, he said.

The department generally loses 20 to 25 officers each year to retirement, relocation or failure to complete training, according to the report. The loss of about 5 percent annually is common in police departments of similar size. And only about 3 percent of applicants become officers.

Civilian staff is needed, as well. There were 143 non-sworn staffers working at the police department in November, about 30 fewer than in 2010, according to the report. APD spokesperson Jennifer Castro said the department is working to fill vacancies, "getting back up to the base level."

For now, the focus remains on badge-wearing, gun-carrying officers. It's possible the recent consistency in responses to calls for service will continue even with more officers.

Tolley attributes the regularity of calls for service in the new and old studies to changes in how his department prioritizes crimes and handles reports. Residents are more likely than in the past to file property crime reports online than to have an officer respond to the scene.

PERF also notes that the police department has sought to limit false-alarm calls, calls to minor collisions and "drunk calls." The overall number of calls decreased 9 percent from the period previously examined, yet the data shows the time consumed per officer was virtually the same.

The hope is the changes will allow for more free time as the department fills its ranks, Tolley said.

"Perception is important," he said. "We want the community to trust us. We can't solve problems by simply making arrests. We need to work with people to get the right information."

Communicating with the law-abiding public is imperative, officials said, but strengthening specialized units weakened over the past several years remains a priority. The units investigate the city's more serious crimes.

Asselin, the police union president, said the cuts to the units as shown in the report surprised him. Most of the specialized investigative divisions -- burglary and theft, financial, crimes against children, special victims and cyber crime -- have fewer personnel than in the past.

"It exemplifies that the priority was to maintain patrol while cutting to investigations," Asselin said. "The issue is that the important work these units do suffered."

The investigator positions should fill up alongside patrol, he said. Tolley noted the investigative positions are competitive, and as the overall staffing increases the jobs will go to the most qualified.

The new report offers a dozen suggestions for how to go about bumping up overall staffing of sworn officers. They range from creating a profile of the "ideal officer" and recruiting from segments of the population not traditionally targeted by law enforcement, particularly single mothers, to hiring a full-time recruiter and better selling Anchorage as a desirable place to live.

The recommendations are predictable given the lack of administrative support for the previous study's findings, Berkowitz said.

Another suggestion states the police department should start a cadet program coupled with a continuous open recruitment and hiring process.

Tolley said he believes that could be best achieved by getting a qualified applicant on the city's payroll before they become an officer. This would allow the recruit to work in a civilian position and reduce the chances they go elsewhere. A lot of applicants leave in the middle of the lengthy training and hiring process, he said.

Money is the other major hurdle facing the police department and the city. The ideal level of service identified in PERF isn't cheap, Asselin said.

"You can't do policing on the cheap," he said.

Berkowitz's budget for this year has an additional $5 million allocated for public safety, money generated through budget restructuring as well as increased fees and fines like speeding tickets. The money will help pay for three police academies in 2016.

Asselin said he is encouraged by the current administration's commitment to public safety, but the injection of money will help only in the short term. The challenge will come in the following years, he said.

"Where will this additional money come from? To head in the right direction, we need support from the community and the (Anchorage) Assembly," Asselin said.

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