Staffing difficulties highlighted after entire Sand Point Police Department resigns

 Landscape of Sand Point, Alaska. (Photo from City of Sand Point).
Landscape of Sand Point, Alaska. (Photo from City of Sand Point). (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 2, 2017 at 12:45 PM AKDT
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Correction: Starting Sand Point law enforcement officers are being offered between $24 to $28 per hour – not $24,000 to $28,000 annually, as the story originally stated.

A small town in Alaska is serving as an example of the difficulties faced by rural communities to retain workers for sensitive, yet necessary positions.

Sand Point had a full roster of four law enforcement employees – three officers and a chief – before a series of resignations left the entire station understaffed.

"There are certain situations that we cannot control," said Andy Varner, City Administrator for Sand Point. "A family or an officer with a spouse – any employee for that matter – it can still be hard in a rural and isolated community, if you're not from there and if you don't know anyone there, when you show up."

As for Roger Bacon, the former police chief, Varner confirmed that Bacon offered his letter of resignation, in order to take a vacation to Scotland.

Moreover, Varner said all four employees submitted their two week notices, around July 1.

"Two officers left on July 7. One officer left on July 15. And the chief left on July 20," he listed from memory.

This left Sand Point without law enforcement for three days – July 21, 22 and 23 – until a region state trooper flew out on July 24. Varner said the state trooper remained in Sand Point, until Hal Henning, the current interim police chief, was hired on July 27.

However, the real issue Sand Point faces is not the lack of law enforcement. According to Henning, the problem in Sand Point is the same problem that many remote communities face – retention.

"It's a typical rural village, and it's hard getting people to come out," Henning said.

Since July 27, Henning has been overseeing the logistics of the police department, and he has seen three 9-1-1 calls during that period for a bar disturbance and two domestic issues.

While the town is not in an unsafe position, Henning says that they need a more permanent solution to the staffing problem, as he is only working on a 30 day contract.

According to Varner, this recent lack of retention is "bad luck."

Two of the former officers and the chief were only with the Sand Point Police Department for 5 months, while the other former officer was with the department for 4 months.

"If we can get an officer for a couple of years, we're happy with that," said Varner. "Having a police chief for longer, then that is ideal. Our last chief (prior to Chief Bacon), he was there for 3.5 to 4 years, and that's more typical."

Henning, who is partially tasked with overseeing the hiring process while acting as chief, said that they are "looking at other solutions, from increasing pay to a two week on, two week off schedule.” A main issue Henning highlighted is the cost of travel and the subsequent isolation from Anchorage. Henning said a one-way flight to Anchorage from Sand Point can be around $475, whiles a round trip comes close to $1000.

It can become complicated to hire people who live locally, because in a small town like Sand Point, with a population coming in at under 1,000 people, most people know one another. And this can make for sticky situations, when enforcing the law.

Henning said people are hesitant to take a job where they may have to enforce on one of their friends or relatives.

"It's the same issue a lot of remote communities face," he said. "It’s difficult to find people locally who want to do that work."

This leaves Alaska's rural communities, like Sand Point, needing to come up with ways to attract outside hires.

"We're not in a position to be in an arms race with bigger communities by pay," said Varner. "But we're looking at things like different rotations and housing incentives."

Varner said that Sand Point's starting officer base pay is between $24 to $28 per hour. He emphasized that officers could also earn retention bonuses, housing stipends and are provided vehicles to drive. Whereas, the police chief is a contract position, meaning pay is "way more dependent on their experience."

Recently, a trooper was observed making his rounds in Sand Point, after transporting a prisoner. This gave some residents the false understanding that, now that all the local police officers have left, Alaska State Troopers would be taking over law enforcement in the town.

"That is not the case," explained Megan Peters, a spokesperson with Alaska State Troopers. "It's a Sand Point issue. If something happens, we assist, but we are not setting up shop."

Peters said the officer in question is based in Anchorage. She said he is often one of several troopers who fly to the Aleutian communities, when issues require a trooper presence.

Varner said he spoke with State Troopers and Sand Point's public safety contracted consultant, in order to devise a plan on what would happen, in case there was a crisis or aggression during the three days without law enforcement.

If a


incident occurred, "we would reach out to the nearest community and borrow an officer," said Varner.

During the brief period of time, in which there were no law enforcement officers in Sand Point, both Varner and Henning said that there were no major crime issues.

"Thankfully it's a slow period crime-wise," said Varner. "People are busy fishing. Sand Point is a working town – a fishing town. Things are under control. There was no purge."

However the town still needs solutions.

"It (hiring) could take two months. It could take four months. But if we get the right applicant that makes a lot of sense for Sand Point, it could be a shorter time-frame," said Varner. "We will have additional interim officer help showing up in a week or so."

In the meantime, Varner said that Henning agreed to be on board for at least a few months. And he is hopeful that it will be enough time to complete proper applicant screening and hiring.