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New Juneau officers bring diversity, depth to police department

The Juneau Police Department, like many other departments across the state, doesn’t have enough have officers to adequately cover the community. But the department celebrated a small success recently.

Not only will the two latest recruits be a welcome relief for the veteran officers, but they will also add to the department’s diversity.

The two young men recited the officer’s oath during a recent ceremony at the Juneau Police Department. New police badges were then pinned to their uniform, marking the start of their new career in law enforcement.

Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer said the two men are just the latest hires for the 57-officer department. They’re now about halfway toward filling a total of 13 vacancies.

“I would have to say that we’re making some progress in this area,” Mercer said. “It’s a very trying time to get police officers. Every time we do, it’s a big win for this police department.”

Mercer said they’re competing heavily with other police departments in Alaska for new hires. All are trying to recruit and keep officers before they are permanently lured away by Lower 48 departments offering better salaries and benefits.

Is Mercer worried the vacancies are allowing the crime rate in Juneau to rise? Not really. He said some crimes actually have been trending down recently.

According to Troy Payne, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, adding more officers has virtually no effect on the crime rate, anyway.

“We’re just not able to detect any difference in crime rates when we add police officers,” Payne said.

However, police officers actually do much more than just respond to crime.

Payne calls it “order maintenance.” They respond to a stranded motorist or help emergency medical services during an accident or fire. They do traffic stops and monitor school zones for speeders, serve warrants, and break up disputes before they become a crime.

“When you’ve got a real noisy neighbor and you call the police to come handle it, most of the time that’s not going to be a crime in progress,” Payne said. “But it’s certainly something that the community expects police departments to do.”

Meanwhile, a shortage of officers can have a big impact on other things like training, shift relief, and fatigue and vacation time for everyone in the department. Overtime pay may go up, and ranks may get stretched thin as officers are rescheduled to fill holes. Mercer is more concerned about those operational issues while making sure the community is adequately covered.

Payne said the statewide average is currently about 1.7 officers for every thousand people in a community. He reviewed police department staffing statistics in his fall 2017 article for the Alaska Justice Forum. Juneau, with an estimated 32,094 people, currently averages 1.5 officers for every thousand residents. It will be nearly 1.8 when the department is fully staffed.

Every community is different, though. Payne said the threshold or a minimum number of officers depends on each community’s particular demand for services.

“And if the police staffing goes below that threshold, I think you would absolutely see increases in certain types of crime,” Payne said.

Payne noted that for every officer put on the street, a department also needs to hire an additional two-to-five officers to fill out the remaining shifts 24/7.

Mercer said they use a national officer search firm, but most of their recent recruiting successes have focused on finding candidates who want to live in Alaska or Juneau. Out of the previous batch of seven recruits, six either currently live or previously lived in Juneau.

Take those two new officers who were just sworn in. They don’t just want to live here, they’re also from here.

Jonah Hennings-Booth is an Iñupiaq 23-year-old from Eagle River who was introduced to a law enforcement career working as a technician for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

“It’s completely different (on a) day-to-day basis, and I never know what to expect,” Hennings-Booth said. “So I think that is going to be very exciting for me.”

Duain White previously served in the infantry in the U.S. Army. He’s a Tlingit 32-year-old from Hoonah and Juneau who worked at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

“I think that it’s very important for people to see us in uniform, along with someone they can relate to,” White said. “They would feel more comfortable seeing someone (of the) same culture and also be a positive role model for other Native kids.”

There are now five officers, or 10 percent, of the Juneau Police Department who are Native American or Alaska Native. According to the latest U.S. Census data, people identifying as “American Indian and Alaska Native alone” comprise 12 percent of Juneau’s population.

Mercer, who was promoted to chief in 2017, is Tlingit and originally from Sitka.

“Having both Officer Hennings-Booth and Officer White out there is only going to make our agency better when it comes to diversity and serving our community,” Mercer said.

Both Hennings-Booth and White will spend 15 weeks at a police academy in Sitka before hitting the Juneau streets for three months of field training.