After two recent police shootings in Bethel, the city's police chief said that his officers made the right decisions. Those shootings are currently being reviewed by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Now, the chief has to try to deal with how the shootings will affect a department already plagued by low staffing and chronic turnover.
A shooting deeply impacts not only the individual who was shot, but the whole community. Bethel Police Chief Richard Simmons said that when shootings happen, people should remember the officers, who are also human and are affected by these tragedies.
“I've got a police department right now that their hearts hurt. You know, because this affects us deeply,” Simmons said.
Besides the hit to the department’s morale, a police shooting can increase the burden of work on the other officers who weren’t involved. Because of the two separate shooting events, Simmons placed four officers on administrative leave to allow them time to emotionally process those events.
“That means that the guys who are already working, and working a lot of overtime, are working a little bit more,” Simmons said.
Bethel’s police department can hardly afford to have any more officers burn out. At the beginning of December, there were four vacancies among 16 funded officer positions. Four officers left after Simmons was hired in July. Simmons said that timing had nothing to do with his arrival.
“If you stop and look at when people are leaving versus when I came in, it didn't take much to realize that at least a couple of them already had their foot out the door,” Simmons said. “And we're not losing people at any greater rate than what we always have.”
In 10 years, he said, the police department has gone through around 120 employees, a statistic that the city’s director of human resources backed up. That’s a rate of one BPD employee lost per month.
Three of the officers who left this year went to the Sand Point Police Department, an Alaskan town with around 1,000 residents. Frank Farr, one of those officers, wrote in an email that he left because he was “just tired of dealing with all the intoxicated people. I am too old to be wrestling with drunks.”
City of Bethel Human Resources Director James Harris conducted exit interviews with the other officers who left recently, and said in an email that most officers cited the volume and type of calls as the reasons they were leaving.
“They leave and go to another agency within the state where they're not working nearly as hard. It's not as dangerous. It's not as violent,” Simmons said.
And when violent incidents like the recent shootings occur, it affects recruiting.
“When we have stuff like this happen, it's going to make it where some people aren't going to come out here, because they're going to look at it and go, ‘Oh, my God,’” Simmons said.
The chief said that luckily, some new officers have already been hired locally within Bethel, with more candidates in the pipeline. He said that the department might even be fully staffed by the end of January, but he said it would be false confidence to assume that everything is going to be better.
“We can't just say, ‘Oh, it's fixed,’ and assume it's going to stay fixed. It's got to be something that we've got to constantly be dealing with,” Simmons said.
That means, first of all, that Bethel should constantly be recruiting new officers to replace the outgoing ones. To do that, he said that Bethel needs to improve its benefits package. He said that Bethel’s two-week-on, two-week-off work schedule is its biggest recruiting tool, but other municipalities in the state are offering more.
“Besides pay, besides two weeks on and off, they're paying for plane tickets for folks, they're paying for housing for folks,” Simmons said.
Then, to keep officers in Bethel, Simmons said that the city will need to address the root of the turnover problem.
“Being out here running from call to call to call for 12 hours a day for 14 days straight,” Simmons said. “Part of that is if we get the staffing up, it'll make it to where we work here a little bit different, we're not feeling swamped.”
Simmons acknowledged that it will take money to increase the staffing at the department, but he has a plan to convince city council members that the money is worth it.
“Be truthful,” Simmon said. “It's that simple, I'm not going to ask for things that we don't need, okay? But we have to understand that if we don't change, then nothing else is going to change.”
Simmons said that setting up a police staffing system for the future is the single biggest thing he could do for Bethel as police chief.