OPINION: Do Alaska legislators support first responders? Actions speak louder than words.

The ADN recently reported that the Alaska House of Representatives is delaying action on House Bill 22 by burying it in a subcommittee. House Bill 22 would create a defined-benefit pension option for police officers and firefighters.

I have been a police officer in Alaska for 23 years. As a sergeant with the Seward Police Department, I am lucky enough to have a pension under PERS Tier III. However, there are only two other people in my department that are Tier III, and we are all set to retire in the next few years.

I started my career in 1999 in Bethel as a patrol officer. I moved to Seward in 2006 at the time Tier IV was initiated. Based on my two decades in law enforcement, I can attest that eliminating pensions for first responders has crippled the ability of Alaska law enforcement agencies to retain and recruit officers and troopers. These are my firsthand observations. You don’t have to take my word for it — the Public Employee Retirement System’s 2022 Annual Report clearly shows that early- and mid-career turnover among law enforcement is as much as 255% higher under the defined-contribution system than it was under the defined-benefit pension system.

Furthermore, when the Alaska Department of Public Safety released its Commissioned Employment Engagement Survey 2017-2023, the department concluded, “returning to a defined benefit system was reported as a key factor in retaining commissioned staff, along with competitive pay, lower health insurance premiums, and more monetary retention incentives.”

Short staffing caused by retention problems puts officers and the public at risk. According to an FBI study in 2020, Alaska has the highest rate of assaults on police officers (more than five times the national average) due to an increasingly strained social fabric and the fact we are all short-staffed and often must send officers out to dangerous calls alone. I was part of that statistic — in 2020, I had a gun put to my head during an arrest because we didn’t have the proper staffing ratios to ensure backup.

In 2020, we heard the slogan, “Defund the Police.” I submit that passively watching our law enforcement agencies fall to crisis staffing levels without doing anything has the same effect as actively defunding them. We cannot staff our departments or keep skilled officers on our rolls. They leave for better departments down south that take care of their people. They leave for departments where they know that at the end of their careers, they will be able to collect a pension.

Like many in law enforcement, I am politically conservative. I have always believed in the value of law and order, in fact, I have always greatly respected Rep. Laddie Shaw, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, because of his role in repealing SB 91, his prior consistent support for defined-benefit pensions for first responders, for his honorable service as a Navy veteran, and as a Tactical Instructor at the Alaska Public Safety Academy in Sitka.


Today, my respect for Mr. Shaw has been severely shaken. The reasoning he gave for his nearly unprecedented choice to change course on his support for pensions -- and park HB 22 in a “special subcommittee” for the purported reason of extra vetting -- rings hollow to me and every other police officer I know. It feels like abandonment, and a stall tactic to delay action on what I consider to be the most pressing issue facing our departments.

The Republican House Majority says it supports law enforcement, and when I and other police officers and firefighters testified on HB 22, committee members repeatedly said “Thank you for your service,” but the House leadership’s decision to sideline HB 22 leads me to question: Did they really mean it? As my mother used to say, actions speak louder than words. Now, more than ever, we need more courage and less partisan fear in the Alaska House of Representatives. Our police officers and firefighters and the safety of our communities depend on it.

Patrick Messmer has served Alaska as a police officer for 23 years and is currently a sergeant at the Seward Police Department.

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