As the Anchorage Police Department works to fill its ranks, efforts are also underway to ensure it more accurately represents the city's racial diversity. Currently, the department is mostly white.
"It's going to be a challenge for the department as well as the community," said Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley. "We don't want to just recruit bodies. We want a staff that reflects the diversity of Anchorage. So what we're doing is taking a hard look at different groups and making sure we're doing our best to get good representations for each of them."
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has lauded Anchorage's diverse population -- his inauguration ceremony incorporated his family and displayed the city's cultural melting pot. His special assistant's tasks include focusing on community diversity. He has also committed public funds to increase the number of Anchorage officers.
According to research carried out at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the city's Mountain View neighborhood is the most diverse in the country. Three of Anchorage's high schools and six of its middle schools are among the top ten for diversity in schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In comparison, white people make up 82.6 percent of APD's 507 sworn and unsworn officers, according to data from June 2015, the latest numbers available. Spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said that total number has only increased by a few, so the demographics are likely unchanged.
Among other ethnicities, Asians account for 4.7 percent; blacks, 3.9 percent; Hispanics, 3.7 percent; American Indians, 2.6 percent; and multiracial/other fill out the remaining 2.4 percent, according to the data.
The police department's demographics are similar to other departments nationwide. According to a report by The New York Times, the percentage of white people on the force is over 30 percent higher than the communities they serve. Minorities make up a quarter of police forces, the report said.
APD's "ethnic minority strength" was at 17.4 percent, according to its data.
Majority of applicants are white
The police department received 1,440 applications in 2015, through Dec. 7. Some of the applications are carryovers from previous hiring periods.
According to the data, most people submitting their credentials and vying for a cop job in Alaska's largest city are white.
Two-hundred-fifty applications were "unsuccessful," the data says. Among the remaining applicants, 738 were white men and women. Applicants forwarded for more testing from blacks, Hispanics, Natives (American and Alaskan) and Asian/Pacific Islanders totaled 92, 84, 58 and 128, according to the data. Twenty-six applicants didn't declare their race.
Before retiring last year, former Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew told Alaska Dispatch News an academy from 2015 was examined and each of the steps in the hiring process was laid out to see if any knocked out a certain group of applicants more than others.
"We didn't see that from the standpoint of ethnicity," Mew said. "It seems to me that the process was fair in treating everyone equally."
Tolley agreed. He said the police department looks at the outcome of each academy, and the data shows people aren't being knocked out disproportionately.
The two academies completed in 2015 added 39 officers to the ranks, according to the data. The first class in May consisted of 20 new officers. Fourteen of them were white. Of the remaining officers, three were Hispanic, one black, one Asian or Pacific Islander and one multiracial.
The next class in November was largely the same. Two black men earned their badges, according to the data.
The qualified workforce
Minorities aren't applying to APD as much as whites are, the data shows.
Mew said the reasons fewer minorities apply to become officers go far beyond the police department. Their choices have to do with social injustice, education and the economy, just to name a few, he said.
"The city has a lot of refugees, a lot of kids, children growing up here," the former chief said. "There are a multitude of different languages spoken, that's true. But that's different than the qualified workforce."
Applicants must be 21, have a high school diploma or an equivalent and no "significant" criminal history, according to APD.
"The fact that the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts members of minority communities is an important feature to consider. Police departments use contacts with that system to exclude people," said Brad Myrstol, associate professor at UAA's Justice Center.
Researchers, professionals and policymakers need to ask what the relevance of certain screening factors are for predicting good police work, Myrstol said. For example, many requirements by default favor men, he said.
Myrstol also noted that many of the people who would be considered qualified applicants don't want to join law enforcement.
People are unwilling to apply for the police because many have negative associations with them, he said.
"It becomes difficult for police to change those perceptions," he said. "An important aspect of changing those perceptions is improving relationships with minority communities and changing the demographics of police departments."
The police chiefs old and new said the applicant pools aren't nearly as large as they used to be, so they're reaching out through different avenues.
Shifting recruitment efforts
The Anchorage Police Department reintegrated its Background and Recruitment unit within the last year. The unit was shuttered as APD did not have academies for a few years, said police spokesperson Castro.
She said they started with the basics -- attending job fairs, soliciting applicants on social media platforms -- but they quickly noticed things had changed. They weren't getting as many applications; they continue to get lower numbers, Castro said.
Myrstol says the numbers may be dwindling because qualified applicants are opting for higher-paying, less stressful jobs.
Realizing the older methods no longer work as well, Tolley said recruitment officers are now focusing on every corner of the city. He listed events where APD has had a presence over the past year: the Polynesian Flag Day celebration, a diversity celebration at the Northway Mall and Alaska Pridefest, among other gatherings.
"We have a great opportunity right now," Tolley said. "Funding is in place, which we needed before we could even take the appropriate steps to bring more people on board."
At an Anchorage Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting earlier this month, Tolley said the department plans to enlist specific community leaders to act as proxies in APD's recruitment efforts.
Tolley said he's asked members of his department to form a "game plan" for reaching out to leaders in specific communities, such as the Korean, Japanese and LGBT communities.
"We want to try to get community leaders who are comfortable with working with us to help us use our resources best," Tolley said. "Breaking down any possible barriers."
Tolley also said the department has been trying to "break down barriers of misunderstanding" by hosting workshops and boot camps to show people how the department's physical and written tests work.
Community activist Mao Tosi said he made suggestions to former Chief Mew about what the police department could do to improve its relationship with certain groups in the community and increasing its diversity.
Those talks occurred during a transition period for APD, as Mayor Berkowitz took office and leadership at the department was likely to change.
"There weren't any decisions made about my suggestions, so, for me, it was really discouraging, to the point of where I kind of backed away," Tosi said.
He added the solutions include ramping up community policing -- in which officers regularly visit areas to talk with people and simply offer a presence -- and empowering residents to take on some of the responsibility. He said he didn't want to go into the details, as he hopes the police department will reach out in the near future.
Berkowtiz's spokesman, Myer Hutchinson, said recruiting diverse officers is still at the top of the city's to-do list.
"While putting more officers on the street is our top priority, the mayor wants a department that better reflects the community. We believe these goals are not mutually exclusive and look forward to working with APD to do both," Hutchinson said.
Reporter Devin Kelly contributed to this report.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing