On Thursday, 24-year-old Hannah Scott and 53-year-old John Hardy will receive their Anchorage Police Department badges after five months of training at police academy.
Scott and Hardy joined the force for similar reasons. They said they're passionate about clearing the community of drugs and working in a police department with strong loyalty and integrity among officers.
But they said current staffing levels and an ongoing labor law dispute concern them.
The police department is trying to increase its numbers after losing 38 officers last year, which resulted in the lowest number of officers working the streets and cases in Alaska's largest city since July 2005. Many of the officers opted to retire in order to keep benefits only available if they left before Jan. 1, 2014.
"They bring it up that they need us," said Hardy. "But the department definitely hasn't lowered its standards to get bodies. That doesn't work in the long run, and they know it."
The spring academy wraps up Thursday, and the fall academy will kick off about a week later. Some 24 recruits are signed up for the next academy. Recruits are currently being sought for a third class set to begin in May, said department spokesperson Jennifer Castro.
Good town, good people
Soon-to-be grads Scott and Hardy come from different backgrounds, though they said many of the spring academy's 20 graduates have a military background. Castro said more than half of the new officers served in the U.S. military. Georgia-based nonprofit Hire Heroes USA told Police magazine in January that about 20 percent of returning veterans seek civilian law enforcement jobs.
Hardy recently retired from the military after 35 years and said a transition to the city's police department seemed to be a good fit. He has no prior law enforcement experience, he said.
He'd previously done weapons training with the department's SWAT instructors, and their collective attitude encouraged him to join the ranks.
"For me, what pushed it was their attitudes," Hardy said. "They were very positive, motivated, and wanted to demonstrate how well they knew their craft. It motivates me. When you're with those kind of people, especially coming from a military background, you just want to excel."
Having moved to Anchorage in 1983, he considers the city his home and didn't look at other departments.
"It's a good town with good people," he said. "I know the area and the clientele, if you will. The best part is I get to be home."
If he'd taken a job with the Alaska State Troopers, he might have had to move to posts in Bush communities. That's OK for some people, he said, but after years in the military he likes the idea of staying in one location.
Scott came to Alaska from Connecticut about six years ago. She attended the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she studied justice, leaning generally toward criminal law courses.
She said her classes used data from APD for a fair amount of instructional research, and what she saw reflected a desirable work environment. Friends who worked within the department spoke highly of it, too. New officers weren't needed when she obtained her degree but once they started recruiting again she jumped on the opportunity.
In the long run, Scott said, she would like to join the vice unit, which has lost six officers since 2010.
"I'd like to see less drugs on the streets, is what it comes down to," she said.
Hardy echoed her sentiments, stating that drugs are a common theme in other crimes, such as domestic violence and sex assaults.
Staffing woes not a deterrent
Scott and Hardy said they didn't factor in just how short-staffed the police department was when they signed up for the academy. It doesn't change their decision, they said, but it's certainly a topic of discussion among officers.
After seeing firsthand how the department manages the shortage and speaking with colleagues, Scott said, she realized how it's negatively impacting their work.
"I knew it was the job I wanted, and I knew I wanted to work for this department," she said. "It didn't really sway my decision but I can see how it would sway others, because it's really important that we have more officers. … It's not safe for us or the public."
Hardy realized the severity of the shortage after going on ride-alongs. He always assumed that up to 50 cops were patrolling the streets of Anchorage.
"Come to find out it's like 16 to 20 (officers)," he said. "It was a surprise. If the public only knew, and they probably should."
Regardless, he said, cadets who don't make the grade will be cut from the academy. The spring academy started with 24 students, four more than are graduating.
Four and a half months will pass before the cadets patrol the streets alone, however. Training officers accompany the rookie police officers, providing support and instruction.
So, unlike the academy's "officer survival week," in which volunteers fill local bar Chilkoot Charlie's and act out a rowdy night, they'll head out into a real sea of weekenders, albeit with an extra set of eyes watching with them.
City support necessary
Advocates of public safety workers have banded together in the past several weeks to garner votes against a divisive city labor law, Anchorage Ordinance 37 or AO-37, which will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
The Anchorage Police Department Employees Association sponsored radio ads supporting "no" votes on the ballot measure. The ads feature officers and detectives talking about their jobs and public safety. Newer ads argue the law would negatively affect recruitment and retention.
Police and fire union members vigorously oppose elements of the law that they say would give management authority over equipment, scheduling and staffing, and make changes to the collective bargaining and binding arbitration process.
Scott and Hardy said they'd choose to come to the department regardless of pay but the city's support of public safety is needed.
"It's very important that the city backs us up," Scott said. "And that's the issue right now, I think, is that they're not in perfect harmony. … We can't have our minds elsewhere when we're trying to protect the public. Having support is huge and it will be detrimental to our department if we don't get that."