A worsening staffing shortage at the Fairbanks Police Department is forcing a scheduling change. There aren’t enough officers to cover all shifts, and the situation is driving tough choices and measures to boost hiring and retention.
The Fairbanks Police Department plans to reduce patrol hours beginning Aug. 1. FPD Chief Ron Dupee says the department will no longer have patrol officers on duty between 8 a.m. and noon.
“We’re going to a two/10-hour schedule for the patrol officers,” Dupee said. “So patrol officers will be here starting at noon, and then the second shift will come in at 10 p.m. and work till 8 a.m.”
Dupee notes that there will always be a few officers at the police station, including himself, who can respond to emergencies during the non-patrol hours. He says the schedule change reflects critically low staffing.
“This is the first time in my 18 years that we’ve been down this far,” he said.
He says of 44 budgeted FPD positions, only 29 are currently filled — and 13 of those are administrative.
“Our patrol officers, the guys that are actually on the street working, we have 16 and six of those are on administrative duty, some kind of leave,” Dupee said. “So we really only have 10 patrol officers for the City of Fairbanks right now.”
FPD Capt. Nathan Warner points to a downward spiral caused by patrol burnout and limited opportunity to pursue specialized police work like K-9, narcotics, or SWAT, programs Warner says benefit the community and police officers.
“It creates quality of life and progression for career, so you end up retaining employees,” Warner said.
Warner says that FPD, like departments across the country, is competing for a dwindling pool of officer candidates. And the current patrol grind, along with less-than-competitive wages and benefits, has officers leaving faster than replacements can be hired and trained.
“We’re bleeding officers,” Warner said.
In an effort to turn the situation around, Warner and Dupee have requested the city use funds budgeted for unfilled positions to attract and retain officers. At a recent meeting, the Fairbanks City Council passed an ordinance that triples an existing hiring bonus for experienced officers from $20,000 to $60,000.
City Mayor Davide Pruhs told the council the bonus, which is paid in two increments over three years, is warranted given the critically low staffing situation at FPD.
“It’s the most immediate fix for the issue,” Pruhs said.
The city council is considering two other measures aimed at boosting officer hire and retention. One would increase the base wage from $34 to $42 an hour.
The other would put $10,000 per year into officer retirement accounts, money they could access after 13 years at FPD. It would augment the state’s public employee retirement system, which in 2006 eliminated pensions for the latest tier of employees.