Dillingham’s Police Department is understaffed following the resignation of two officers in the past month. But high turnover is common at DPD. Burnout, a lack of funding and competitive benefits are some of the mounting challenges the department faces when it comes to staff.
Dillingham’s Police Department is understaffed following the resignation of two officers in the past month. DPD staffs 19 employees across its four divisions: patrol; corrections; dispatch and animal control.
But high turnover is common at DPD. Burnout, a lack of funding and competitive benefits are some of the mounting challenges the department faces when it comes to staff.
“We hired people; we were recently fully staffed. We weren’t playing catch up, we’re happy, we can get ahead. Then two officers left," said Dillingham Police Chief Dan Pasquariello.
Pasquariello’s worked at DPD for three decades, and he’s dealt with the same stubborn staffing challenges for just as long.
“When you have constant vacancies you’re always playing catch up and you become a training department," he said. "When that happens, it causes officers; be it police or corrections; they have to work extra time, they have an increased workload, they work alone more often, they have higher stress levels and then they leave.”
It’s a tough cycle to break out of. Just last month, two DPD patrol officers resignied.
Daniel Fawcett-Gonzales was employed for three months; he left to return home to Metlakatla. He responded to February’s shooting near Kanakanak Hospital and is one of the officers who fired his weapon. He has four years of experience as a police officer.
The other officer who recently quit, Suzi Newman, worked in Dillingham for three years. Then she took a job with the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation.
In some ways, the constant churn feels like routine. Pasquariello recalls a four month stretch where he was one of only three officers.
“The chief, me and one other cop," he said. "We worked six days a week, 12 hour days." It’s not just a problem now. So we figured out, one of the reasons officers don’t stay is pay and cost of living.”
Dillingham’s police department isn’t the only one in the battle to keep police officers.
Bob Griffiths is with the Alaska Police Standards Council. The council sets regulations to hire, train and certify police officers. Griffiths said that smaller stations across the state, like Dillingham’s, struggle to retain officers.
“The agencies that do seem to have a little better ability to recruit are those that have robust recruiting programs and off some of the best salaries and incentives to come work for them,” he said.
In Dillingham, two challenges are pay and living remote.
The department pays up to $29 an hour for an officer. But that’s at least $6 less on average compared to openings in Ketchikan, Unalaska and Kotzebue.
While Dillingham does pay more than other larger communities, Pasquariello said:
“Their benefit is they’re on the road system. They’re not in the Bush. We can’t compete with large departments in Alaska.”
Pasquariello has recently deployed new recruiting methods including a signing bonus for officers who are already certified. The department also sends new hires without experience to the police academy, especially if they’re local.
“Somebody local wants to be a policeman, we’ll invest with them," he said. "We usually have pretty good luck with them and we’ll get three or four years out of them before they decide to move on.”
He adds that DPD is also considering a two-week on; two week-off rotation for police officers. It’s a schedule adopted in larger communities like Bethel, the North Slope and Kotzebue, as well as smaller places like Sand Point.
The rotation would allow officers to live in Dillingham just part time.
“Officers work for two weeks, then they go back to the community and the family where they live," Pasquariello said. "We don’t do that, but that is something we are looking at in order to compete.”
With a full staff, Pasquariello said the department could focus on proactive approaches to public safety, rather than only reacting to emergencies.
That means watching for speeding on Kanakanak Road or identifying other potential illegal activity.
“It could be community outreach. If we’re not busy reacting to calls or shot staffed, we can send someone to the schools or do other things that police wise would benefit the community,” he said.
But despite another staffing shortage, Pasquariello said DPD still employs a core group of people across it’s divisions who have stuck around for a long time.
“Couple years ago, the city gave out pens and certificates for longevity. Sixty or 70% of the people who received certificates for working five years, eight years, 10 years all work at the police department," Pasquariello said.
"So with all this turnover, those are the people that are helping answer your 911 calls, watching over people in custody, responding to calls and they’re the backbone of the department. So as I say, we will do the best we can with the staffing level that we have,” he said.
Dillingham’s police department is currently training a new officer with no previous experience in law enforcement. The department is also looking for a certified police officer.
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