Petersburg police to end round-the-clock coverage

Petersburg’s police chief says the community will no longer have round-the-clock police coverage starting in late August or early September. That’s in response to the Petersburg Borough Assembly’s decision last week not to fill a vacant sergeant’s job.

Petersburg Police Chief James Kerr penned a letter to the Borough Assembly Monday saying the 24/7 coverage will be ending. It means there will be times when non-priority calls to the department won’t have an immediate response by a police officer.

And it’s a decision, Kerr writes, that haunts the entire Petersburg Police Department.

“This is the thing that haunts me the most, is the idea, I mean, we have to implement less than 24/7 coverage,” Kerr said in an interview this week. “I’ve always been in places where you call for an officer, you have them right then and there.”

The department is budgeted for nine officers, counting the vacant sergeant’s job and a drug officer that is grant-funded and can’t be used for patrols. The Borough Assembly last week voted against filling the sergeant’s job over concerns with state funding cuts. The job was advertised in October of last year, but then the borough froze that hire while the Assembly looked at eliminating funding for that position.

In the meantime, officers have been working 12-hour shifts, with one officer on duty at all times.

James Kerr

Petersburg Police Chief James Kerr. (KFSK file photo)

“Then when they go home, sometimes they get called back because one of the other officers needs help or something like that, and so they actually are working more than 12 hours a day,” Kerr said. “And it’s just long hours and the constant calling back to work. It’s burning people out,” Kerr said.

For obvious reasons, Kerr isn’t willing to talk about what hours of the day or week won’t have an officer on duty. He doesn’t want to give someone breaking the law an idea of the best times for that. However, a dispatcher will be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But a call or complaint may see a delayed response. In an emergency, an officer will be called.

“You might get one, you might get three,” he explained. “It’s just depending upon the situation how many we need to call out during that time. So officers will be working their normal hours. And then we’re also going to be paying them standby time. And so, we’ve got that extra added cost to the borough. And then every time they get called out, it’s two hours of double time. So if the call takes 30 minutes, they still have two hours at double time. And then they go home. If they get called out again an hour later, there’s two more hours of double time.

“So it’s going to cost some serious money. But with the staffing levels we currently have, we can’t support the 24/7 coverage,” Kerr said.

Kerr said other small Alaska towns like Haines and Cordova don’t have round-the-clock coverage, but officials in those towns have told Petersburg officials it won’t be a money-saving measure because of the standby pay and overtime.

Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter urged the Assembly to keep 24/7 coverage this year during budget discussions. In a January letter, Hofstetter wrote that the medical center has seen violent patients in the emergency room, requiring nursing staff to call for immediate police help.

“If we don’t have 24/7 coverage with law enforcement, my concern is the risk to staff, particularly after hours,” Hofstetter said. “We don’t have a security force, so we do rely on law enforcement to assist us in difficult situations.”

The police chief said the new coverage schedule will be based on what are typically the busiest times, and he’s open to input on that. The change will allow the current force to switch to a different schedule for its officers, likely 10-hour shifts instead of 12.

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