ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Parked behind the Department of Public Safety building in Anchorage, a fleet of eight brand new Ford Explorers sits gathering snow, waiting for new Alaska State Troopers to put them to use.
AST recruitment supervisor Lt. Derek DeGraff says the scene paints an apt picture of the critical staffing challenges facing the department due to reductions in state funding. Currently the department has enough funding from the state to pay for 382 trooper positions statewide, about 40 fewer jobs than in previous years. Of those 382 authorized positions, 45 are vacant.
According to DeGraff, a recent study by the University of Alaska found that AST is about 45 percent understaffed in the Mat-Su Borough alone.
“We’re telling people no for some of the services we provide,” DeGraff said. “There are calls for service that we no longer go to in certain communities as we have to triage calls as they come in and decide what we’re going to respond to.”
For the troopers still in service, DeGraff says the increased workload has also had a big impact on morale.
“It’s just burnout for our existing troopers. We continue to ask them to do more and provide them less,” he said. “We’ve had to close eight different trooper offices over the past few years.”
In an effort to get more troopers on the streets, AST says it has invested significantly more in its recruiting effort, launching targeted ads on social media, attending job fairs across the state, creating promotional videos and more. But sometime a job with Alaska State Troopers can be a tough sell.
“It’s not for everybody. We constantly have our friends that are police officers tell us, 'that’s a job I couldn’t do, I wouldn’t want to do,'” DeGraff said. “Just because of the inherent scope of the mission and the challenges that the job brings.”
DeGraff says budget cuts have also affected wages and benefits, making it harder for AST to compete with other departments in the Lower 48 that offer perks like a pension. That makes it harder to attract new recruits, but the bigger issue for AST has become retention of its experienced staff.
“Over 90 percent of our command staff can retire in the next five years. A whole lot of those folks can retire today. I know of three that are retiring this month, I know of two troopers that are leaving to go to other departments just this month,” DeGraff said. “Right now we’re carrying around a water bucket that’s leaking significantly.”
There is some good news, as the department’s recruiting efforts are starting to pay off. DeGraff says five new troopers are completing field training and nine recruits are set to begin a new academy at the end of February. The department estimates they’ll have as many as 15 recruits attending the next academy in July.