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Dillingham jail closed due to short staffing

220909 Dillingham police department
Izzy Ross
The entrance to the Dillingham Police Department. Sept. 9, 2022.

The Dillingham City jail has been closed for two weeks. At a city council meeting Thursday night, City Manager Robert Mawson said that’s because the city is short on corrections officers.

“I think we're down to one corrections officer, so our jail is not open at the moment, which doesn't affect the city operations too much. But it really does affect the state operations," he said. "Our troopers are having to bring in prisoners and get them transported to Anchorage or King Salmon relatively quickly.”

Dillingham’s police department has struggled to fill positions for years. The jail closed for two weeks last year, also due to short staffing.

Dillingham’s corrections division usually staffs four to five people. But Mawson said it’s been tough to recruit people to fill job openings throughout the department.

“We seem to have a real issue keeping positions in our public safety. They have opportunities to go elsewhere, quickly, either with a state or with probation or other opportunities. So it's kind of a hard thing for us," he said. “It's difficult to get officers that will staff that jail. And our dispatch is down a couple of positions. I think our police officer staff is down a little bit as well. But we do have four — two on, two off — and a couple of local officers here," he said. "So we're doing better with patrol than we have in the past."

The Alaska State Troopers are responsible for public safety in much of rural Alaska. Dillingham is one of 15 Alaska communities that contracts with the state to essentially serve as a midway point after someone is arrested. The other jails are in King Salmon, Cordova, Craig, Haines, Homer, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Utqiaġvik, Petersburg, Seward, Sitka, Unalaska, Valdez and Wrangell.

220909 Dillingham Police Department
Izzy Ross
The Dillingham Police Department. Sept. 9, 2022.

“[The state troopers] have to have a place to bring them, at least temporarily, so they can send them to Anchorage in the long run," Mawson said in an interview after the council meeting. "So the community jail's purpose — essentially, that gives them a place to bring somebody to hold them for a period of time before they can get them transported out to Anchorage.”

Mawson said the state is working to help update those facilities. Since the jail is closed, he said, a state representative will travel to Dillingham to evaluate the city’s operations and help decide how to move forward.

“They will come out, take a look at our situation, work with the troopers and our staff to decide maybe when the best times to have the jail open are," he said. "It may not be a 24/7 operation. But if there are days of the week, times of the day that might be more beneficial to have staff, then we would point towards those times to do what we can to have a plan going forward so that we know what we can do with two, three, four officers.”

Alaska's community jails will see a bump in funding next year; the state contracted with them for $7 million per year in 2021 and 2022. The legislature bumped the funding to $9.9 million for the 2023 fiscal year. Mawson said they are still in talks with the state to determine how to distribute the additional $2.9 million, since some facilities cost more to operate than others.

While Dillingham's jail and dispatch staff are down, Mawson said the patrol force is doing relatively well. Those officers serve on two-week rotations.

“I believe right now we have five patrol officers and the acting chief," he said. "So not all of them are here all the time. We do have officers coming from out of town on a two-week rotation. So we have four rotating officers. They’re here every two weeks.”

Mawson said one of the officers wants to move to Dillingham full-time, and the city would like to recruit more locals to work in the department. The city will also start to recruit for a permanent replacement for longtime police chief Dan Pasquariello, who retired this year.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
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