Kodiak police hope new reality TV show will help improve recruitment woes

From left to right, Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney and Sgt. Michael Sortor. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Cable television network A&E is launching a new reality series called “Alaska PD,” following law enforcement in Kodiak, Petersburg, Kotzebue and Fairbanks. A teaser released last month casts the show as exciting and dramatic, chock-full of wildlife and violent crime.

Kodiak’s police force is on the small side — about 15-18 sworn officers at any given time. But it’s no stranger to a television film crew. The department has been featured in a number of TV shows, from the program “Alaska State Troopers,” to a German reality TV show, to the original, “Cops,” back in the early ’90s.

“It’s a big interest for people to see what goes on behind the works with policing,” said Sgt. Michael Sortor, one of the Kodiak officers featured on the show. Policing in rural Alaska is already so different from anywhere in the Lower 48. Sortor said the location just amplifies the excitement of a regular cop show.

The promo for the show is pretty heavy-handed with that idea.

“Alaska has the most extreme climate, the harshest terrain and more violent crimes per capita than any other state,” the voice-over declares over a series of quick cuts between officers running and carrying guns. Some shouting cops hold a suspect to the ground. There’s something that looks like a car chase, and there’s some obligatory b-roll of two brown bears fighting.

Under-policing and high levels of violent crime are major issues in parts of Alaska. Over the summer, Attorney General William Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska. The Department of Justice has allocated tens of millions of dollars to help Alaska Native villages address crime and violence.

But Sortor doesn’t expect the Kodiak portion of the show will include a lot of violence, and certainly no car chases.

“Primarily bears and just your summertime responses,” he said. “I think maybe some vehicle accidents and traffic stops, DUIs. Stuff like that.”

The film crew followed two Kodiak police shifts all last spring. They rigged police cars with GoPros, miked up each officer and rode along on everything from traffic stops for a broken taillight, to an incident last May when troopers and police were hunting a startled bear that had killed a dog in Spruce Cape.

“Nothing was staged. It really wasn’t,” Sortor said. “They would go and they would film it, and then afterwards, they would do something with us like a debrief. They’d go, ‘Tell us what happened.’ So truly what people are seeing is what it’s actually like, almost like ‘Cops.’”

Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney said A&E approached the city for the show in early 2018.

The main reason they said yes?

“The appeal was definitely recruitment,” Putney said. “I think not just Kodiak, or Alaska, but just nationwide, I know a lot of departments are having a hard time with recruitment. This was just, you know, this was one way to kind of get some free advertising out there.”

Putney and Sortor take a lot of pride in their city, and they both view the show as an opportunity to showcase the community.

At the same time, they said there are parts of a Kodiak police officer’s job that people might be surprised to learn about. One filmed traffic stop turned up over a pound of methamphetamines, which Kodiak police said is a reflection of a growing drug problem in Kodiak.

“You’re going to see another facet of Kodiak, which might not always be a fun thing to watch,” said Sortor. “But it’s a reality of what we have to see a lot.”

But is a reality TV show the best place to educate the public about increasingly urgent public safety issues? Both officers said they felt some trepidation about the way Kodiak would be represented, but they’re hoping the audience will look at the show with curiosity, more than anything else.

Sortor even has a warning for viewers.

“I would tell people if you’re learning about Kodiak, please don’t rely solely on cop shows. Maybe start off with some nature shows and then work your way into it. But I think (‘Alaska PD’ is) going to have a lot of quintessential Alaskan things in it.”

When asked in November, A&E network representatives declined to provide an interview for this story until December. The series launches New Year’s Day.

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