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Unalaska Struggles To Attract And Retain Cops

Laura Kraegel

Staffing at Unalaska’s Department of Public Safety was the focus of Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

City Manager Dave Martinson says there simply aren’t enough police officers to cover the workload. In the last year, he says the department has denied 20 leave requests because of insufficient staffing.

“At the end of the day, I don’t have enough hours of coverage to afford people to do what they need to do to stay fresh,” Martinson said.

The department needs 11 officers. But right now, there are only six.

Public Safety has relied on overtime to cover staffing holes, but Martinson says that's not a long-term solution.

“One of the biggest concerns I have is that fatigue causes short tempers, which cause conflict, and that’s not what we’re trying to do," Martinson said. "We don’t want the conflict. We want to address issues in a calm, professional, personal matter to get voluntary compliance to take care of business.”

But it’s hard to find police officers willing to work on the island, where the cost of living is high and starting salary is only about $30 an hour.

2011 was the last year, the force was fully staffed. Mayor Frank Kelty has concerns that the department hasn’t been able to fill positions that are already open.

“We can’t compete with what Anchorage, Fairbanks, and communities on the road system can offer. Are we going to have to go to the Southeast United States, the Dakotas, or somewhere to try and get officers to fill our positions?”

The answer? Yes. Holman says Public Safety already has a nationwide search underway. Department officials have made recruiting trips across Alaska, to Arizona, and soon, to Wisconsin.

The city has proposed adding three more positions to Public Safety's staff, but only councilor Roger Rowland supported the idea.

“I have a problem sitting here as a council member saying: ‘We value you. We like you so much, but you’re going to work over time for the rest of your career because we’re only going to give you one more officer,'” Rowland said.

Some were open to adding one additional officer. But many — like Councilor Yudelka Leclere — said the current staffers should be the priority.

“What are we doing for the officers currently on staff to ensure they are not fatigued or stressed?" Leclere said. "To ensure that they are going to remember to protect and serve and have positive engagement with our community?”

The fire department was not immune from staffing discussions, either. The department has about 21 volunteers, but only a third respond to each call.

Leclere expressed concern that the city isn’t getting a good value for the volunteers it pays to put through training.

“I’m a firm believer that if we’re paying for something -- we’re training you, and you’re using that as a title to get a job somewhere else and take it from this community -- then you need to put it back into this community,” Leclere said.

The council agreed that adding another paid leadership position, senior fire captain, would be a step in the right direction.

Councilors said they will continue discussing Public Safety staffing at future meetings.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.
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