The Juneau Police Department is struggling to fill nine vacant officer positions, including five airport security slots.
JPD has upped its recruitment efforts in recent months — including spending around $5,000 in an ad campaign — but has hired only one new officer since January, according to JPD spokesman Lt. David Campbell.
“We are still actively recruiting,” he told the Empire Wednesday, noting that a group of recruits came in for preliminary testing last month and another group is slated to test later this month. “We’re down positions, we’re down bodies and we’re trying desperately to get ourselves up to better staffing levels.”
JPD is supposed to have 59 officers but now has only 50. Campbell said the department is down one sergeant, a school resource officer and two patrol officers, plus the five new created positions for the airport.
Changes in federal regulations mean sworn officers, rather than unsworn security officers typically provided through private security companies, must patrol the airport. JPD was directed to take over for Goldbelt Security at the Juneau International Airport and began providing enforcement there in October.
JPD is staffing the airport (at least one officer has to be there 24 hours a day) with patrol officers. There’s a monthly sign-up sheet, and officers volunteer to work shifts at JIA based on seniority. The officers get paid “straight time” but usually it rolls into overtime, so the officers get paid time and a half per the Fair Labor Standards Act.
JPD bills the airport for the cost, which is hefty. Airport Manager Patricia deLaBruere said she did not know what the actual expenditures were for the past few months or how much of that was in overtime pay, but the airport projects it will cost $545,000 in Fiscal Year 2014 to pay for the last three months of Goldbelt’s 2013 contract and JPD services from October 2013 to June 2014.
That number is expected to increase by $19,000 next year, she said.
“We’re looking at $564,000” for Fiscal Year 2015, she said.
Campbell said the department is stuck with the “high-cost” overtime mechanism of providing airport security until it can hire new officers, get them through the Department of Public Safety Training Academy in Sitka and assign the officers to the airport beat, he said.
Unfortunately, that takes time, he said. The training academy is only held twice a year, once in February and once in August. He said JPD hopes to hire recruits by June 30 and provide in-house training (a five-week pre-academy training program) to ensure their success at the upcoming academy session.
JPD is also looking specifically to hire lateral transfers in order to get around that extended time frame. Lateral transfers, or officers certified in another state, are allowed to begin working for an Alaskan police agency immediately, but must then graduate from a shortened two-week long academy session within their first year to stay on.
JPD Chief Bryce Johnson is an example of that. Certified in Utah, Johnson was hired in June and began working for JPD. He attended and graduated from the transitional academy in January as an Alaska-certified police officer.
By hiring the lateral transfers, “we can get boots on the ground quicker” at the airport, Campbell said.
Campbell said there has been interest from locals who want to join the police department, but most applicants don’t make it through the grueling hiring process. Applicants must pass a preliminary written aptitude test, a physical strength and agility test, an oral three-person panel interview board, a personal history questionnaire, a suitability and assessment test, a psychological test, a background check which takes a month to complete, a polygraph and a final psych evaluation from a psychiatrist.
“It’s a very long process,” Campbell said, adding that the standards are high especially since JPD is an accredited police agency. “There’s a very high attrition rate, not a lot of people make it through.”
Only 8 percent of applicants made it through the hiring process for 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined.
The No. 1 reason people did not make it through was because applicants withdrew themselves from the process. Campbell said he suspects that may be for two reasons: outside hires decide they don’t want to move to Juneau, or the process takes too long.
He said JPD has tried to mitigate the latter reason by hiring laterally so people can get to work quicker. There’s not much else JPD can do without sacrificing its standards, he said.
“The thing is what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to lower your standards to fill positions,” he noted. “The standards are in place for a reason.”
Take out the self-withdrawn from the equation, and the attrition rate from 2011-2013 is just 12 percent, Campbell said.
JPD is also at risk of losing its two patrol officers assigned to the downtown walking beat. Those positions were funded by a U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant, which was a one-time grant that did not have the option to be renewed. The grant provided funding for the officers salaries and benefits for three years (to the tune of about $567,452) upon the condition that JPD fund the fourth year on their own.
Campbell said the department is in the final year of the grant right now, and next year, the City and Borough of Juneau will have to fund the two officers’ positions, per the grant’s conditions. It’s not known whether those two positions will be eliminated after that.
“I don’t know what the decision’s going to be, but from my perspective it’s popular and it’s effective,” Campbell said of the downtown beat. “What’s going to happen with it? I don’t know.”
Campbell noted he was hired under a COPS grant in 1995.