Police patrol for potential recruits

Juneau department works to fill ranks

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Juneau Police Department is looking for a few good men. Or women. Or anybody who really wants to serve the public and can pass a rigorous screening process.

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The police department is short staffed. In addition to needing five patrol officers, the department also needs an investigator, a community service officer, a school resource officer and five dispatch personnel.

Of the 48 sworn patrol officers budgeted, the department has 43. Fifty-one officers have been authorized and four are in the initial phases of training.

Greg Browning, chief of police for the Juneau department, said despite the need for staff, the problem hasn't reached a level in which the public is in danger.

"I'm not saying that if we had more officers, things wouldn't be better, but I don't want to give the impression that there is a problem with public safety," he said.

The department is in the process of hiring more officers. On Dec. 16, it will conduct another set of online tests for applicants.

Browning said there are many reasons his department faces significant difficulty attracting qualified applicants.

The requirements for becoming a police officer alone filter out many people. A successful applicant for patrol officer must be physically fit, have impeccable judgment and the ability to deal with extreme stress.

"It takes someone who can make good decisions, sometimes life-and-death decisions," Browning said.

In addition, they must have either a GED or a high school diploma, pass an oral interview board, undergo a psychological evaluation and a background check, and pass a polygraph test.

Questionable moral character, drug use, criminal records or even bad credit can eliminate recruits.

"While we don't expect people to be perfect, we do expect them to handle there finances responsibly," Browning said of the credit requirement.

"It's difficult to find people that match these expectations. It's not difficult to find applicants, it's difficult to find qualified applicants."

Right now, the department has eight applicants who have made it past the initial stages of the hiring process.

"Eight's not a lot. If you get one out of eight, you're lucky," he said.

Browning said he looks for local applicants because they know the community better and tend to stay on the job longer. Recruiting applicants from out of state has its problems.

Despite the starting pay for patrol officers, about $50,000, the high cost of living and the isolation of the city tend to discourage people from coming to Juneau.

"There's a perception we live on an iceberg," Browning said.

There are numerous challenges to working short-staffed, said Browning - challenges that must be met with ingenuity.

"They work hard and they work with less," the chief said.

Blain Hatch, a patrol officer and 13-year veteran of the force, said the shortage of officers hurts emergency-call response time.

"Sometimes you have police officers handing more serious calls alone," he said. " When its a dangerous situation, a few minutes (waiting for backup) can be a lifetime."

Officers also have to work a significant amount of overtime, Browning said. The extra hours places a big burden on officers and their families, Hatch said.

"We all signed on knowing we'd be doing shift work. We expect (to have to work overtime.) Once or twice isn't that big of a deal, but when you work several days when you have off, it gets to be monotonous and very stressful," Hatch said.

Browning said Juneau's problems are just part of a trend common to the rest of the state and the nation.

Greg Wilkinson, information officer for the Alaska State Troopers, agreed. The Troopers themselves are at least 10 percent short of their personnel goals.

Of the 382 funded slots, the state department has 41 openings for officers. Roughly a quarter of those openings are because of the regular comings and goings at the department, Wilkinson said, but the rest is due, in part, to the difficulty filling positions.

"I would say every police department in the state could fill positions," he said. "Any big department in the state needs people. ... Everywhere around the state is suffering from this problem."

Both Browning and Wilkinson agreed that the shortage of qualified candidates is in part due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, every federal law enforcement agency has been pushing to fill its ranks. Local agencies are no longer competing just with each other for candidates, they are competing with more prestigious, better funded agencies.

Hatch, who used to work as a mechanic, said he's glad to be a police officer in Juneau.

The work is interesting and demanding, but ultimately very rewarding.

"You've got to want to do the work," he said. "It's not for everybody."

• Will Morris may be contacted at william.morris@juneauempire.com

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