Why Does Unalaska Struggle To Recruit And Retain Police?

Jan 10, 2019

Under the new legislation, Unalaska no longer has a Public-Safety director/police chief in charge of all local law enforcement. Instead, the city has one police chief and one fire chief. Both will run their own departments and report to the city manager.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

A new police officer was sworn in at Tuesday's City Council meeting, but even with his addition the patrol division is just over half staffed.

According to Acting Police Chief Jennifer Shockley there are six vacant police officer positions as well as the permanent police chief role. There are no vacancies in corrections or communications.

Why is it so hard to keep the department staffed?

Shockley says nationwide interest in public safety services – especially law enforcement careers – is at an all-time low.

“People do not want to go to a job where they go to work with a target on their back," Shockley said. "We also have a lot of people who are looking for two weeks on/two weeks off contracts. That does not mean two weeks on/two weeks off living in the community. What they’re looking for is the ability to live in Florida or Idaho and come up to work for two weeks at a time.”

While the department gets a number of requests for this type of schedule, Shockey says it’s not something the city can currently entertain because it doesn’t fall within the guidelines of Unalaska's police officer contracts.

City Councilor Roger Rowland says his knee jerk reaction is that he wants his officers to be part of his community, but he also wants the department fully staffed.

“I left town for six months and I left my keys in my car and my house unlocked. I want to keep it that way. It’s thanks to those guys driving the streets," Rowland said. "Even though I don’t like two weeks on/two weeks off and I may not like some other out of the box ideas, I don’t think it’s fair to make those guys work 12 hour shifts."

Shockley is also not a fan of the two weeks on/two weeks off schedule, but she says there’s a changing workforce.

"We have a whole different generation of people who are coming into the workforce and they have a different set of expectations for what kind of work environment they will have," Shockley said. "That might be something we have to look at more closely if we want to retain staffing."

Recruiting to Unalaska is especially difficult because there's a high demand for officers across the state.

Shockley says out of more than 50 law enforcement agencies in Alaska, 46 have openings.

“We are competing with places that are on the road system. Places where the cost of airfare to get to and from a major airport is cheaper," Shockley said. "Places where people can get to see their families more easily. Places that offer two weeks on/two weeks off schedules."

Shockley says the city is looking at creating short-term – two-to-three month contracts – for already certified police officers. Additionally, an officer went to Seattle to attend recruitment fairs which she says the department is interested in repeating in February or March.

Applications for the police chief and police officer positions are on the city website. The police chief position closes Jan. 28. It’s a new position created when the City Council voted last year to separate fire and emergency medical services from the Department of Public Safety.