When the Fairbanks Police Department Employees Association announced there would be a town hall on Monday night, the organization got 100 comments on the Facebook announcement post. And while considerably fewer locals showed up to the actual meeting, the passions of both law enforcement officials and audience members were no less present.
The public meeting was called to bring attention to concerns that Fairbanks Police Department staffing is dangerously low, due to comparatively low salaries and benefits. The law enforcement officers that spoke stated the reason FPD struggles with retention is twofold: too much overtime and too little pay compared to other Alaska agencies.
The meeting began with a short presentation by Ron Dupee, who is a union representative and an officer with FPD. He showed that the starting salaries of Alaska State Trooper recruits and those just starting out at FPD are starkly different. First year troopers, according to the presentation, make $34.98 per hour. First FPD officers make $23.41 per hour. As interest in law enforcement as a career dips nationwide, Dupee said, “it’s an employee’s market.”
The crime rate in Fairbanks, according to Dupee’s presentation, is nearly double the national rate. Despite this high crime rate, the police department is only able to staff two officers per shift. This is half the previous rate, which had four officers per shift.
Lt. Gregory Foster, also with FPD, spoke at length, stating that the low staffing not only put officers in danger, but forced them to “triage” calls. He explained that the police department had to prioritize calls based on need and that some calls, like those involving property crimes, had to be delayed in order to address more urgent matters.
Further, he said, not having enough officers meant that dangerous situations became more dangerous and increased delays in getting backup.
Dupee also pointed out that of the 45 available positions at FPD, only 36 were filled — a 20% rate of vacancy. This leads to hundreds of hours of overtime. Dupee stated that some officers accrued 700-800 hours of overtime in a single year.
High overtime also affects retention, Dupee said, as “it takes a toll, and they look for ways out.” He said that two officers from FPD this year sought employment at other agencies for this reason.
Also of concern for presenters was the experience lost when officers leave FPD for other departments. They stated that it takes three years for an officer to become comfortable policing an area.
He went on to say that while Fairbanks is a city of 31,000, it’s rare for the population to stay at that level. Between workers who live in the borough and tourists, the number of people in the city is often much higher. Dupee said a large percentage of crimes committed in Fairbanks are committed by people who do not live here.
Dupee acknowledged that police staffing is low nationwide, but said the successful recruitment efforts in Anchorage, Juneau and Alaska State Troopers disproved the notion that the problem was solely public opinion of law enforcement. He felt it was imperative for FPD to raise employee pay, provide better benefits and retention incentives and fully staff the police department.
Some residents were unconvinced. One man said that one police officer was paid $180,000 per year. “How much do you really want per year, officer?” he asked.
Sgt. Richard Sweet, president of the Fairbanks Police Department Employee Association, explained that the officer didn’t quite earn that much. The stated $180,000 was how much it cost the city to employ him, between benefits and salary. More than that, he said, the officer had worked some 800 hours of overtime.
Sweet slammed his hand on the table. “I’m not begging you for money. I don’t want it. I want another officer on the road. I want five officers on the road, on my shift. How many do you want?” he asked.
Sweet explained the outburst after the meeting. “I think there’s a misconception that we’re greedy, that we’re asking for money because we think we should be earning $100 an hour,” he said. “What gets lost in translation in all the discussion, on both sides of it, is it takes more money to pay somebody to be a police officer today, than it did 10 years ago, 20 years ago.”
Audience members offered several suggestions. One man thought raising the room tax would be a good idea. A woman who said she was the mother of an FPD officer encouraged those present to speak to City Council and to tell that body, “It’s about darn time you support our police department!”
The audience clapped in response.
Fairbanks City Councilwoman Shoshana Kun spoke next. She said that public works, police and fire were all funded from property taxes, alcohol and marijuana taxes. “If you want to help, you can support a sales tax,” she said. She went on to say, “The way you get people to stay is to pay them. The way to pay them is to pay your taxes.”
“The reality is we vote down taxes every two years,” Kun said. She said that those present, if they wanted to support police officers, had a duty to vote and fiscally fund them.
Several members of the audience decried the idea of a sales tax. One man felt that implementing a sales tax would lead to higher and higher taxes later. Another found it offensive that Kun associated the plight of the officers with higher taxes.
Alan Mitchell, however, said, “We have to stop being afraid of what dog is gonna come out of the yard and bark at us.” He said that, in neighboring communities, sales taxes helped to fund fire trucks and other needed equipment.
Contact staff writer Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or find her on Twitter: @FDNMcity.