Police union holds town hall to discuss crime, staffing shortages

A Juneau Police Department cruiser closes the inbound lanes of Egan Drive after a truck rollover on July 25th, 2016. (Photo by Mikko Wilson / KTOO)
A Juneau Police Department cruiser closes the inbound lanes of Egan Drive after a truck rollover on July 25th, 2016. (Photo by Mikko Wilson / KTOO)

Juneau’s law enforcement union held a public meeting Thursday night to hear from the community and share information about increasing crime rates in Juneau.

The union began contract negotiations with the city on Thursday and hopes to leverage public safety concerns to address pay and staffing shortages.

About 60 residents attended the town hall, and about a dozen spoke to the union representatives from the Juneau Police Department and Alaska State Troopers about their experience with crime in the capital.

One of them was Evanne Katasse-Roberts, a resident of Switzer Village in Lemon Creek.

She talked about the frustration she and her family have felt watching a series of suspected drug dealers cycle through their neighborhood.

She said she’s seen the amount of discarded needles and more drug activity around her home spike in the last few years.

She estimates she calls the police two or three times a week, and while she says they’re responsive, the problem doesn’t go away.

“I want to know what I can do to help our police officers, our state troopers, to get ahold of this epidemic,” Katasse-Roberts said. “It’s ridiculous, everything that myself and my family have endured and witnessed in my neighborhood.”

Juneau Police Sgt. Sterling Salisbury, the chapter president for the Public Safety Employees Association, said that’s a common refrain.

“We have seen an uptick in crime over the past three years and don’t feel, as a union, that our city is approaching it with a theory of ‘we need more police officers on the street,’” Salisbury said after the meeting.

In a presentation, the union representatives said JPD has lost 17 officers to other agencies since 2010.

They said the losses, coupled with problems attracting new officers, have led to continued vacancies in the department.

That means they have as few as three officers on duty at a given time.

“I’ve been a cop for almost 12 years and I’ve never seen it to where we were fully staffed,” Salisbury said.

In July, the Juneau Assembly approved a 2 percent raise for police personnel and retention bonuses for sworn officers hoping to address the hiring shortages.

But Salisbury said it’s not enough.

He said they need more than a dozen additional officers — on top of the positions they’re already allotted — to address the number of calls coming in.

“The problem that we have with that is we can’t hire enough people to even fill those positions. So in one respect we’re very appreciative, but we still need the help in getting more people in the door,” Salisbury said.

Both JPD officers and state troopers point to retirement benefits as a major factor hurting retention.

While Salisbury acknowledges that a return to a pension-style retirement plan would need to happen at the state level, they can advocate for better wages.

“In this day and age when people don’t want to be cops, and that’s what we’re going to have to turn to, is trying to be a competitive agency where people want to come and work,” Salisbury said.

Police Chief Ed Mercer attended the meeting but did not speak.

He’s scheduled to present an update on crime at a Juneau Assembly committee meeting on Monday.

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