The Fairbanks Police Department remains understaffed, despite a recently approved hiring bonus.
Police Chief Eric Jewkes told City Council members this week the substandard pay is driving high turnover and making recruiting difficult.
Jewkes said the short-staffed department must deal with a spike in violent crime while a new labor contract is being contested in court.
Jewkes told council members in Monday’s meeting that statistics show the rate of violent crime in Fairbanks is well above the national average.
He said his officers have been on the receiving end of that violence several times so far this year. Like when they confronted a heavily armored man on June 19, who charged at them firing an assault rifle after they’d cornered him in a field on the city’s south side.
“A gunman (wearing) soft body armor, rigid hard plates over top of that, covering his torso; body armor taped around his arms, taped around his legs and a ballistic or bulletproof facemask,” Jewkes said.
Police shot Matthew Stover, 20, to death, and the case is still under investigation.
That was one of four officer-involved shootings so far this year, including one that followed the fatal shooting of Sgt. Allen Brandt.
In another, Jewkes, himself, was among four officers who returned fire on a man who led police on a high-speed chase around South Fairbanks and east of town on May 25, until he was blockaded at the Mitchell Expressway onramp to the Richardson Highway.
“That’s the environment in which we’re asking them to work,” Jewkes said.
Troopers ruled the deadly force used against Shawn Buck, 23, was justified, because Buck reportedly was shooting at police and ramming their vehicles with the stolen truck he was driving.
That case also remains under investigation.
Jewkes said the recent spike in violent crime locally is reflected in the seven murders in Fairbanks that’ve occurred through July, compared with eight in all of last year.
“In seven months, that puts us on par to have 12 this year,” Jewkes said.
Based on that calculation, Jewkes said 12 murders in a city of 33,000 would greatly exceed the national murder rate, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which annually lists the rates of crime in cities and states per 100,000 population.
“That equates to 36.4 per 100,000, or 7-and-a-half times the national average,” Jewkes said.
Jewkes said the report shows violent crime occurs twice as frequently in Alaska compared with the national average, even more so for assault and rape.
“The U.S. average for aggravated assaults per hundred thousand people (is) 237; the Alaska average is 497,” Jewkes said. “The U.S. average for rape is 38.6; the Alaska average is 122.”
The chief told council members he’s trying to fill six vacant positions.
He said most of the other 40 or so officers must work mandatory overtime to help staff those and seven other positions that’ll be filled once the new recruits graduate from the academy. That means the department also is hard-pressed to deal with lesser offenses, he said.
“Lower-level crimes are often a struggle to investigate, because of the limited number of officers who are inundated with more serious calls,” Jewkes said.
Council members thanked Jewkes for his talk, but couldn’t offer much more than encouragement. That’s mainly because the city is awaiting a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court on a dispute over a new contract the council approved in 2014 that would’ve boosted pay and benefits.
The council later rescinded the contract over a concern it was too generous.
The Public Safety Employees Association, which represents the police, then sued claiming breach of contract. Most observers say a ruling on the case isn’t likely anytime soon.