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Rural Alaska

How an Alaska fishing town rebuilt its police department after all its officers quit

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: February 8
  • Published February 7

A view of Sand Point from the Tustumena ferry in 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The police department in the town of Sand Point is nearly back to full size after all its officers quit last year.

The surprising part is that the new chief and three officers all live thousands of miles away. They fly into the fishing village on an island off the Alaska Peninsula in shifts — working two weeks straight and then taking two weeks off, like many oil workers on the North Slope.

It's a solution that more remote police departments struggling with turnover have adopted, said Bob Griffiths, executive director of the Alaska Police Standards Council.

Sure, most communities would prefer to have their police officers living in town full time, he said.

"But the reality is, the departments have trouble recruiting and retaining people who want to do that or who can do that," he said.

"So I think out of necessity, this is becoming a more and more popular way of staffing departments."

Sand Point police force quits

Sand Point's staffing issues reached a crisis in summer 2017, at the height of a frenzied commercial fishing season.

Sand Point is on Popof Island. It's home to about 1,000 people — a number that swells by several hundred during summer.

Over a few weeks in July, Sand Point's entire four-person police force quit for a variety of reasons, leaving the town without a law-enforcement presence for four or five days.

No major crime happened, according to residents, but the story made headlines nationwide.

Hal Henning, who lives in Washington state, started as the interim chief soon after.

Sand Point Police Chief Hal Henning. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

He's a former police chief for the Kachemak Bay town of Seldovia and most recently worked as the town marshal of Winthrop, a town in the Methow Valley of Washington.

He described Sand Point as a scenic, tight-knit fishing community with about 6 miles of paved road, two restaurants, two bars, two grocery stores, a school and a cannery.

In the past three years, more than a dozen police officers have cycled through the town. Many of the hires had little policing experience, Henning said.

He wanted to figure out how to stop the churn.

"The officers usually do pretty well up here; it's the families that have a hard time with no malls and no real stores," he said.

"Sand Point is this beautiful, quiet little community, but it costs you over $1,000 to get off the island for the weekend."

Switching shifts

Henning took the job as the full-time Sand Point police chief.

Over the past several months, he said, he reworked the department's budget so he could boost officer pay, shrinking the gap between officers and the chief.

Henning then shook up how the department handled staffing.

He hired three people from Outside — two from Washington and one from Colorado. Combined, they have decades of law enforcement experience.

The idea: They'll trade off two-week-on, two-week-off shifts in Sand Point.

"We're finding the right puzzle pieces for Sand Point," he said. "Just because we're rural doesn't mean we should be wanting for proper police protection."

A fourth new hire from Kotzebue, Thomas Slease, will live in Anchorage and staff the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, which targets smugglers and bootleggers at airports.

"Basically, we're trying to cut the head off the serpent," Henning said.

Currently, Henning and one other officer are rotating to Sand Point.

By June, the other two traveling officers will have started their rotations, he said. Two will work in the town at all times, sharing a city-owned three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.

The department will pay for their round-trip flights between Sand Point and Anchorage, 570 miles away.

Trying to halt the churn

Several Alaska police departments have hired nonresident officers to alternate shifts, including Bethel, the North Slope Borough, Fort Yukon and Kotzebue, Griffiths said.

The Interior village of Fort Yukon has had officers fly in from as far away as Illinois. In Kotzebue, a few officers have come in from Georgia and others from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Troopers in villages including Selawik, St. Mary's, Hooper Bay and Aniak also rotate through two-week-on, two-week-off shifts, said an agency spokesman.

"It's far more widespread than we've seen in the past," Griffiths said.

The staffing practice has allowed departments to hire more experienced officers and keep them around longer, Griffiths said. But also, he said, "there may be slightly less connectivity or consistency in how the agency works in those small towns."

In Bethel, two of four police officers rotate in two-week shifts, said Chief Burke Waldron. He hopes to eventually have more officers on that rotation. He has four vacancies to fill.

"It's tough recruiting in a place the size of Bethel; you just don't have the resources to pull from to find qualified officers, so you've got to bring people from Outside," he said. "It's also difficult to police in a small town that you grew up in."

While hiring officers from out of town broadens the application pool, Waldron said, it also means there are fewer officers in town to call if there's an emergency. It can also create issues with court hearings that officers need to attend.

"It's a challenge to schedule around," he said. "But it's either that or fewer officers around, period. … I don't know of a better solution."

Henning said he believes his officers will stay at the department for years. He wants them to be embedded in all aspects of life there, with an officer present at every event — whether it's a potlatch, a wrestling match or a city council meeting.

Even if they're not living in town full time, he said, he believes they'll make more of an impact than an officer who stays for just a few months before quitting, as so many have in the past.

"Who's really going to make more of a difference?" he said.

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