Anchorage police, fire departments remain disproportionately white, despite diversity efforts

An Anchorage Police vehicle parked on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage during winter. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

As advocates across the country push for an overhaul to policing, one area they’ve focused is the diversity of police forces.

In Anchorage, leaders of the police and firefighters say they’ve tried to boost the ranks of minority employees. But both departments remain disproportionately white, according to data released by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration Wednesday.

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Anchorage’s population is 64 percent white overall, and so is about 67 percent of the city’s “working age” population, according to the administration.

The police department’s 442-officer sworn workforce is 79% white — 4% less than in 2016, when Berkowitz’s administration said it was trying to recruit more diverse employees. Of the Anchorage Fire Department’s 395 employees, 88% are white, or 346 people.

Just nine fire department employees, or 2%, are Alaska Native or American Indian, compared to 13% of Anchorage’s population, and four, or 1%, are black, compared to 9% of the population. Out of the department’s 327 firefighters and emergency medical responders — not including dispatchers and other staff — two are black and eight are Alaska Native or American Indian.

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A police spokesman said Chief Justin Doll was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.

But at a community briefing that evening, Berkowitz said that the more diverse a police department is, the stronger it is. And he and Doll said the city needs help making that happen.

“It is not something that APD can do by itself. APD can recruit, but the community has to make sure that people who are members of various subsets of the community are engaged in law enforcement,” Berkowitz said.

Doll added: “We can do all the recruiting we want, but if all the various groups that make up the community aren’t encouraging their members to step forward and accept a career in law enforcement, then no amount of recruiting is going to make that happen.”

Police salaries start at $71,000 a year, while new firefighters, once they finish a probationary period, can earn as much as $100,000.

The fire department plans to hold new clinics and launch a focused recruiting effort in advance of its next test for applicants, aiming to recruit more women and minorities by advertising the attractiveness of the career field, Chief Jodie Hettrick said. A more representative workforce of firefighters and paramedics, she added, would better serve Anchorage residents.

“It’s very beneficial when the people who are responding on calls can understand the cultural differences and understand gender differences and understand, just, life experience differences for the patients that they’re responding to,” she said. “Eye contact is a different thing. Body language is a different thing. We can provide training on how to look at those differences and how to accept those differences, but unless you’re from that particular community, you miss a lot of things.”

Hettrick said her department’s recruitment efforts have been hindered by financial limitations.

“Not as an excuse, but the history of how we got here and why we’re not in better shape is because we haven’t been able to put resources toward it,” she said. She added: “We feel that it’s important that we much more closely reflect our community in our own department. We’re just struggling to get there.”

Both Anchorage’s fire and police departments have been sued for racial discrimination. In 2017, a judge and jury awarded a total of $2.7 million to two former city detectives, and a lieutenant of Samoan descent filed a new discrimination lawsuit against APD in October, claiming the police department had violated an anti-discrimination policy when it refused to promote him several times.

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Hettrick said the fire department hopes to more narrowly target younger and minority recruits by advertising on newer social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. But others say that the city’s recruiting efforts need to go deeper.

“Just bringing flyers to new places is not necessarily the strategy,” said George Martinez, a former special assistant to Berkowitz who’s running for mayor next year.

George Martinez (far right) and his family attend the “I Can’t Breathe” rally in Anchorage on May 30, 2020 (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Martinez, who has black and Latino heritage and used to work on city diversity initiatives, said one way to recruit more minority Anchorage residents to the fire and police departments is by targeting them sooner.

“We need to invest in the pipeline of our workforce here from our school district, by bringing in experiential workforce opportunities earlier on,” he said. “Into high school, into the vocational and technical schools and into pathways that give us a recruitment base.”

The Anchorage Assembly’s public safety committee will look into the issue of police diversity at a meeting next month, said Co-chair Kameron Perez-Verdia.

Alaska State Troopers, meanwhile, have not released information about their demographics, and they have not responded to a public records request for the data filed earlier this week.

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