New officers and more applicants promising, but staffing shortage continues
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - With a handful of new officers in the ranks and more applicants flowing in, things are looking up for the long understaffed Fairbanks Police Department (FPD). But according to Chief of Police Ron Dupee, a full solution for the officer shortage hasn’t yet been reached.
Three out-of-state lateral hires for FPD were welcomed to town on Oct. 23, giving their solemn swears to perform public safety duties in front of city officials who, in recent months, have put the spotlight on recruitment and retention at the department.
The freshly transplanted hires are an experienced bunch, and include officers Joseph Butler, Michael Sullivan and Christopher Conrad. FPD Public Information Officer Teal Soden also reported to the Fairbanks City Council on Oct. 23 that a fourth hire is in the works but currently at the Sitka academy.
Soden further mentioned that 70 people have passed the written exam to date in 2023, including 17 laterals, compared to 53 people for all of 2022, including 9 laterals.
In a Nov. 1 interview, Police Chief Ron Dupee told Newscenter Fairbanks that a June measure the council adopted creating a bonus for lateral hires has sparked the most immediate changes of the three ordinances that increased benefits at the department.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of applicants that we’re getting, and I think, significantly, we can attribute some of that to the $60,000 lateral bonus that we had,” Dupee said, continuing, “we’ve seen a number of lateral applications come through.”
Over the summer, Fairbanks Mayor David Pruhs and the council sought to combat the staffing shortage with a series of actions that bolstered pay and benefits for full-time officers, bumping up wages by $4 per hour and adding the bonuses for lateral hires, as well as shoring up insurance plans by way of annual $10,000 payments to all full-time FPD officers. The council awarded the contract for that plan via an Oct. 23 resolution to National Life Group/Life Insurance Company of the Southwest.
A unanimous council put through two of the three measures, with the ordinance providing wage increases also breezing through on a 5-1 vote.
Dupee did note, though, that three of the four new hires started their application process before associated incentives were put into place. He also clarified promising signs for recruitment don’t necessarily entail the shortage of officers is a thing of the past.
“We’re authorized for a total of 39 sworn positions, and currently we have 30 sworn positions filled,” he said.
That number accounts for the four new hires, putting the department at less than 80 percent of authorized sworn positions filled. In 2021, the Police Executive Research Forum delivered a survey that found police departments nationwide were filling about 93 percent of such positions.
As with many workplaces, staffing shortages have troubled local police departments across the nation since the pandemic. Job openings of all types reached historic peaks last year, both nationally and in Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The October issue of Alaska Economic Trends suggests that COVID-19 may not have been the only culprit. Even before the virus took hold in the U.S, shifting demographics saw the baby boom generation hitting the end of their career cycles with too few workers in their wake ready to replace them.
Dupee said this issue has been mounting since he’s been at the department, not just since the pandemic, recalling the trend began much earlier.
“We’ve had a slow decline since about 2008. We were roughly about 50 sworn officers at the time,” Dupee added, “In 2015 we were down to about 37 officers, and we haven’t come back up to 37 officers since 2015.”
Challenges for recruitment and retention haven’t since subsided.
After police killings of Black Americans caught national attention, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a 2022 Pew Research Center survey found about 26 percent of respondents had a “great deal” of confidence in police, with an additional 48 percent saying they had a “fair amount” of confidence.
Those opinions were split across lines of age and race, according to the survey, which found that Black and Hispanic respondents were less likely to place trust in police than White respondents, and young adults tend to have less confidence than older adults.
A 2023 study from the Journal of Criminal Justice shows shifting sociopolitical attitudes and a drop in favorable opinions toward police have coincided with increases in resignations and retirements following Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd.
“Nationally, law enforcement has been on a downward trend for the number of applicants they’ve received. So we’re really fighting with every other agency in the state, as well as the nation, to find good, quality applicants and be able to hire them,” Dupee said.
While the four hires and series of ordinances might signal a change of tides for FPD’s staffing, the public likely won’t feel any waves from the added officers right away. With one at the academy and two still working on field training, Dupee said it will be months before all four of them will be fully trained.
Even then, the patrol schedule adjusted in June will stay in place, meaning there will still be no patrol officers from 8 a.m. to noon for the time being.
“Right now, we don’t have any plans on changing the schedule,” Dupee said. “These four officers bring us up to where we were four months ago. We’ve had several people retire, quit, go on to other agencies, and so these will bring us back up to where we were at,” he continued.
Dupee later noted he hopes to see full patrols return by the end of 2024.
In the meantime, Dupee says the department will continue plugging away with their available staff and resources.
“We’re still striving to do the best job that we can with the amount of people that we have, and we’ll continue to provide the best quality service that we can for the Fairbanks community,” he said.
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