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Chief: As Police Deal With Spike in Violent Crime, Low Pay Complicates Filling Vacancies

KUAC file photo

The Fairbanks Police department remains understaffed, despite a recently approved hiring bonus. Police Chief Eric Jewkes told City Council members this week the substandard pay is driving high turnover and making recruiting difficult. And while a new labor contract is being contested in court, Jewkes says the short-staffed department must deal with a spike in violent crime.

Jewkes told councilmembers in Monday’s meeting that statistics show the rate of violent crime in Fairbanks is well above the national average. And he says his officers have been on the receiving end of that violence several times so far this year. Like when they confronted a heavily armored man on June 19th who charged at them firing an assault rifle after they’d cornered him in a field on the city’s south side.

“A gunman (wearing) soft body armor, rigid hard plates over top of that, covering his torso; body armor taped around his arms, taped around his legs and a ballistic or bulletproof facemask,” he said.

Police shot 20-year-old Matthew Stover to death, and the case is still under investigation. That was one of four officer-involved shootings so far this year, including one that followed the fatal shooting of Sgt. Allen Brandt. In another, Jewkes himself was among four officers who returned fire on a man who led police on a high-speed chase around South Fairbanks and east of town on May 25th, until he was blockaded at the Mitchell Expressway onramp to the Richardson Highway.

“That’s the environment in which we’re asking them to work,” he said.

Credit KUAC file photo
Jewkes talks with media after a September 2014 standoff that ended with the surrender of a man after a nine-hour standoff on the city's west side. Jewkes says his officers have had to deal with several incidents so far this year that have not ended peacefully.

Troopers ruled the deadly force used against 23-year-old Shawn Buck was justified, because Buck reportedly was shooting at police and ramming their vehicles with the stolen truck he was driving. That case also remains under investigation.

Jewkes says the recent spike in violent crime locally is reflected in the seven murders in Fairbanks that’ve occurred through July, compared with eight in all of last year.

“In seven months, that puts us on par to have 12 this year,” he said.

Based on that calculation, Jewkes says 12 murders in a city of 33,000 would greatly exceed the national murder rate, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, or UCR, which annually lists the rates of crime in cities and states per 100,000 population.

“That equates to 36.4 per hundred thousand, or seven-and-a-half times the national average.”

If the pace of murder committed so far this year in Fairbanks continues, the city could end the year with a murder rate that's seven-and-a-half times the national average, Jewkes said.

Jewkes says the UCR shows violent crime occurs twice as frequently in Alaska compared with the national average, even more so for assault and rape.

“The U.S. average for aggravated assaults per hundred thousand people (is) 237; the Alaska average is 497,” he said. “ ... The U.S. average for rape is 38.6; the Alaska average is 122.”

The chief told council members he’s trying to fill six vacant positions. And he says most of the other 40 or so officers must work mandatory overtime to help staff those and seven other positions that’ll be filled once the new recruits graduate from the academy. So he says that means the department also is hard-pressed to deal with lesser offenses.

“Lower-level crimes are often a struggle to investigate,” he said, “because of the limited number of officers who are inundated with more serious calls.”

Council members thanked Jewkes for his talk, but couldn’t offer much more than encouragement. That’s mainly because the city is awaiting a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court on a dispute over a new contract the council approved in 2014 that would’ve boosted pay and benefits. The council later rescinded the contract over a concern it was too generous. The Public Safety Employees Association, which represents the police, then sued claiming breach of contract. Most observers say a ruling on the case isn’t likely anytime soon.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.