John Lucking is back in Unalaska as the interim police chief -- 35 years after he first came to the island straight out of the police academy.
He spent almost two decades with the local force, working his way up to the Director of Public Safety position. From there, he served as police chief in Soldotna and Sand Point before retiring in Washington state.
Lucking sat down with KUCB's Zoë Sobel to explain how he was convinced to return to Unalaska.
JOHN LUCKING: Well, it wasn't easy. I'll tell you, I wouldn't have come to any other department in the state, if they called and asked. I just wouldn't have. I got a call from a hiring agency that the city had contracted to find some people who might be able to fill in in the absence of a [police] chief here. It was kind of a neat opportunity, as well, to come back home, to see the people who are important to me, and to help. Because I just care a bunch about the [Department of Public Safety]. It will always be my cornerstone department. I held every position there except for the dogcatcher. And some days, I was the dogcatcher too, in spite of not having the formal title.
KUCB: You have a six-month contract. It's paying out nearly $20,000 a month, as well as many cost of living amenities. That seems pretty lucrative. Is that standard? Is that what was needed to get someone in this position?
LUCKING: I think it is. It's a specialty, so to speak -- even in the profession -- to come in and manage. I fortunately had a lot of experience here, so I can walk in already knowing the operations, the building, the people, the community, and those kinds of things. It's not uncommon, and also a person needs to keep in mind I'm not getting any contribution to retirement. I'm not getting any type of medical insurance coverage. I'm not getting any of those other benefits that exist that someone might not see in a reported salary.
KUCB: It sounds like you have experience coming into departments elsewhere and helping them to regain footing, become stable, and move on to their next stage. What are some of your responsibilities? And what will you be doing in the coming months?
LUCKING: I think that's probably a good word -- “stabilize.” That's something that we really need here at the department. It's been a year where the city has looked at separating divisions, so there were problems with making permanent promotions because they didn't know what was going to happen next. In that period of the last year, I know we've lost a lot of people in patrol. A skeleton crew can't even describe what's there. It's less. I think we have 16 patrol positions that include the sergeants. Right now, operationally, we have five people. Manpower is the first objective, and that's getting some people to shore up the numbers in patrol so the folks that are there don't get burned out. So that's the No. 1 need now -- to find some kind of resource to get help here at the patrol level. Outside of that, I'm really happy because the glass is more than half full. The dispatch division has an active sergeant that's a good manager and seems to be running that ship pretty good. And the correctional facility has the same situation where they have a sergeant that's managing a full staff. So we're in pretty good shape there, which lets me focus a lot of time on patrol.
KUCB: I know that in addition to trying to bolster patrol forces -- and just the staff at Public Safety -- there's the big search going on for the next permanent [police] chief. Where does that stand now?
LUCKING: There's a group of applicants that are finalists now. I have been asked to be part of making recommendations, which I feel really fortunate about because my care for the department will go far beyond my time here. I think we are moving towards doing some interviews in April, although things haven't been finalized.
KUCB: Based on what you are seeing now, do you have an idea of when Unalaska might see a permanent chief?
LUCKING: I would suspect probably June. I think in the early part of summer we'll be able to see someone who's been selected. A lot will depend on their timeline. Whoever is selected is obviously going to have some things to wrap up and their lives to relocate here to an island in the middle of the Bering Sea.
KUCB: I know we talked a little bit about staffing and being able to recruit and retain people as a problem. Are there other challenges facing the department or other areas where it needs to grow?
LUCKING: It's a continual morph in this profession -- and especially in this community, because it changes dramatically. The challenges [that would be] big for an executive in the department and the position that I'm holding right now, if it was long term, would be monitoring the state and advocating and doing all we could to ensure we continue to get funds that can leave us operating at the level we need to. We're in a remote place. It's expensive to live here. It's expensive to run a department as a business when you consider cars, heating fuel, business spaces, and things like that. As an executive of the department, I think that's probably going to be one of the focuses. And then second to that is retention for law enforcement. The state's tiered system for retirement doesn't leave much appeal for people coming in to start a long career. It's basically a 401K where they make a contribution to a retirement fund and just a small portion is matched. So when they do retire over time, a lot depends on what happens with that money on their investments.
KUCB: Outside of work, what's the thing you're most excited for being back in Unalaska?
LUCKING: I got here and when my feet hit the ground, I was at home again. I got hugs from old friends and the next morning, I went up to the cemetery and said hello to a lot of old friends that are there and sadly gone now. Then I drove out to Summer Bay and looked over the water, and it was just right.
Correction: This story previously misstated when John Lucking first came to Unalaska. It has since been updated with the correct information.