By Terrence Shanigan Updated 10/26/18
Alaska is facing a conundrum concerning how to fix the problem of skyrocketing crime rates across the state? Politicians have historically professed to have the answer, and when we elect a new governor every four years, they follow the same basic process as their predecessor. It starts by selecting a former cop who worked their way up through the system. Then we appoint this person to the title of Commissioner and expect them to fix a failing system they helped to construct over their decades of service in law enforcement. In essence, our governors are the most significant barrier to resolving the crime issues we face, and it comes down to how they shape the Department of Public Safety and Department of Corrections.
Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If you believe this statement to be true then it isn’t that far of a leap to understand that it would be highly unlikely that once again appointing a career law enforcement officer into the highest leadership position in Alaska will not be an effective solution. It could in fact effectively be the reason change does not occur. Alaska needs something different from our next governor if we expect a profound paradigm shift. Appointing another career law enforcement officer to deconstruct the system they benefit from and created in order to rebuild it into a more effective and highly functioning system would be elusive.
Past governors have relied on the same basic group of people who across their careers negotiated the union contracts stuffed with all sorts of financial incentives that help a few at the expense of everyone else. Couple this with misguided decision-making over decades in addition to weak measurements of success from the Office of Management and Budgets (OMB), and the absence of an effective long-term strategic plan... and you get what we have today… Alaska, a state that leads the nation with some of the highest crime rates in America. To complicate matters, we have a lack of highly skilled executive leadership personnel that are experts at organizational management. Much of what is in place to fight crime is not designed to lower crime. It is by design focused on recruitment and retention of more law enforcement personnel and misses the boat when it comes to crime fighting. It perpetuates and exacerbates the crime conundrum we are in today.
Who benefits from a system where:
• A trooper works 14 days per month in a village and earns around $200,000+ per year;
• Troopers choose to work in rural communities and receive a massive 60% pay increase along with other significant financial incentives over their urban counterparts;
• Massive overtime and incentive pay is awarded to hold special certifications that do not correlate with any crime reductions or increased job performance;
• Expensive transportation costs of moving prisoners around the state are exploited when it is outside of their core purpose and mission even when there are much more cost-effective methods are available;
• Millions of dollars in state-funded grants are awarded for public safety that allow for up to 45% of the money to be spent on administrative costs for things other than public safety;
• A trooper can have millions of dollars in their retirement system after just 20 years of service;
• Negotiated contracts do not calculate the long-term imbedded legacy cost of financing pay increases over the 20 to 30 year career life of a trooper or police officer. Instead pay increases are only focused on the short-term, small incremental annual increases which makes the increases seem deceptively miniscule;
• For over a decade the Alaska State Troopers have maintained (hidden) approximately 80 vacant, funded trooper positions and continued to request more positions annually from the legislature to fill a current need. Why wasn’t the money from the 80 vacancies used for the new hires or if unused returned to the legislature?
All of the scenarios mentioned above are currently occurring, and none of them focuses on reducing crime nor are they based on higher expectations of performance by those in law enforcement. As a former law enforcement officer, you can imagine that taking this position against the system is very unpopular among my peers and rightfully so. Criticism of law enforcement seems position is taboo, but Alaska has one of the most ineffective and expensive law enforcement models employed anywhere in the world.
If a strategy is implemented, especially one that demands more money for our law enforcement, it should be linked with a measurable performance requirement. In the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Department of Public Safety (DPS), it’s a flaw to think the only people we can hire to run the organizations must be former Troopers, Corrections Officers or Police Officers. However, this is what we have done repeatedly and look at the results it is achieving. Alaska leads almost every major crime category. It is not the fault of these individuals as much as it is the result of a system that has a limited scope and capacity. The current system design is based on the notion that if we rely on hiring the best law enforcement personnel in the world, then we can lower crime. Another flaw in the current model also suggests that we just need to hire more police or troopers and when we have enough crime will drop. With thinking like that then if we had one trooper to one citizen, or better yet, two troopers to every citizen we should be near a zero crime rate. More cops doesn't equate to lower crime.
While many past commissioners are noble professionals with some high-level skills and insights, most also are missing the tactical organizational management skills to improve systems that utilize proven problem-solving methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma to achieve a lowering of crime rates. It is rare when this is accomplished by someone that has spent their career in law enforcement. What we need are expert strategic thinkers that have spent their careers designing and improving complex organizational systems. We must make a transition if we are to transform our public safety model into one that works.
Many of our police and troopers joined and were trained to investigate crimes, apply statutes to offenses, shoot a variety of guns, collect evidence, or make traffic stops and issuing citations. All of these are critical to the success of being a competent law enforcement officer, but they do not prepare someone to design processes and systems and problem-solving methodologies that linkup to performance improvement measures.
The statistics are in the news on a nightly basis. We hear the constant reports of another shooting, a missing person, homicides, carjackings, and robberies. It seems endless, and I keep asking myself what is going on here? Does anyone have a clue what is fueling this epidemic crimewave? Nobody currently in government has the correct answer. Elections come and go, and every politician promises a new plan, but nobody has “the right plan.” So, what do we do about it?
Alaska has a massive leadership problem throughout the highest levels of government. Much of it is a result of political appointees that every Governor brings to the table that includes managers, directors, commissioners, chiefs of staff, legislators, and the Governor him/herself. Many politicians we have in place today have refused to listen to Alaskans for the past four years while claiming actually to be making decisions to benefit us all. One example was a letter written in 2016 by a large cadre of former law enforcement professionals from across the state who pleaded with legislators and the governor urging them not to support SB91. Their plea was signed by all of them and articulated many reasons why SB91 was flawed and would fail. Still, they refused to listen.
Early supporters of SB91, also known as “Hug-A-Thug,” legislation were Senators Peter Micciche, Senator Mia Costello, Senator Pete Kelley, Representative Jason Grenn, Representative Gabriel LeDoux, and Governor Bill Walker. These individuals, in particular, chose to ignore the letter and testimony and calls from thousands of Alaskans to change course. The letter listed many negative factors the bill would impact if pass. The message was spot on, and the politicians were wrong, again.
The legislators and Governor Walker who pushed SB91 thought they knew best. Senators Micciche, Costello, and Kelley even took their support on the road telling Alaskans they appreciated the nice letter, but understood the problem better than the rest of us and explained why they fully supported SB-91. Now we see a flip, and a flop by many of the same politicians as each tries to shed this dead snakeskin of SB91 now that it is wildly unpopular.
The approach of DPS managers is also compromised. When politicians continue to appoint commissioners that are career law enforcement officers, primarily troopers, we forget that being a stellar, decorated, police professional is not the same as an executive level organizational leader with a strategic aptitude to improve systems. Remember it is these career police and troopers whose retirement and reputation in law enforcement was built on authority and control and making command decisions for others. They constructed the system to fit their needs which are different than negotiating contracts that focus on lower crime. Commissioners are in no position to stand up to a governor, who just appointed them, nor should we have expected a profound new systemic strategy to reduce crime or make Alaskan’s safer from these political appointees.
From 2014-2017, Governor Walker and many members of the legislature were provided with an annual investigative report of the statewide crime rates and also reviewed the performance effectiveness of DPS and DOC. There are over 80 findings and recommendations to redesign, realign, and refine operations in these two departments. The recommendations proposed savings of almost $100,000,000 (million) dollars per year without eliminating programs or employee positions. The annual report focuses on waste, abuse of funds, and non-mission driven programs. It will take a fresh approach from all levels of leadership within the legislature and the executive branch to identify the root causes of the crime problems and stop reacting to symptoms spurred by ineffective leadership. One of the first adjustments that we need to stop doing immediately is negotiating large contract wage increases for groups like the troopers when there is no expectation of a job performance increase. An example would be: Through strategy XYZ the Alaska State Troopers expect a 7% decrease in sexual assaults statewide and for every 5% decrease above that, Troopers will receive a 2.5% annual pay increase. Instead, we have chosen to hand out large pay increases. Examining the rate at which troopers have seen their pay increase from 2004 to 2016, I saw my wages increase by 72% once all incentives were added together. That's incredible! How can the union continue to argue recruitment and retention issues based on low wages every other year when you are averaging 6% increases per year?
First, we must look to our legislative and executive branch leadership and demand they stop refusing to respect rural Alaska's need for a highly capable, certified, local resident, adequately staffed police presence. Alaskans need to be better informed about what the VPSO program is and is not and how inadequate the current model is in terms of preventing crime n rural Alaska. The proponents of the current VPSO program would have you believe that it is a law enforcement presence, but the Alaska Police Standards Council does not recognize them that way, and many of the DPS managers do not view them or utilize them in that fashion. Show respect for the Village Public Safety Officers (VPSO) by working to legitimize that force. Increase the expectations, standards, and level of training so that VPSOs are fully certified Alaska Police Standards Council police officers in Alaska. The current funding for VPSOs by the state budgets nearly $212,000 per position (as of 2016) compared to $192,000 (as of 2016) for an equivalent trooper. The higher cost does not make sense until you realize that up to 45% of the VPSO funding can be used for non-law enforcement related administrative expenses by the regional non-profit organizations that manage them. Rural Alaska deserves a legitimate law enforcement presence immediately.
Stop choosing to chase a failed model of policing that acts as overlords to rural Alaska by deploying non-local and non-rural minded troopers into remote communities then wonder why law enforcement seems out of touch and efforts are not as effective as we need. The model we have is resulting in embedded adversarial relationships with local, rural residents that view DPS more as outsiders. Alaska needs a new policing model that is set up less like an occupying force and more like a community service. What we have now is ineffective, and we need a new type of transformational leadership that understands why it does not work and how to correct it.
Imagine if there were no local police departments in Soldotna, Kenai, or Homer and every time you called 911 the FBI was dispatched from Seattle to take the call. That's currently how our public safety system is set up in Alaska and delivered to rural areas. It is unacceptable, and the performance of such a system is not achieving the results we need.
Did you know that The Anchorage Police Department has approximately 400 police officers and is led by around 15 command leadership positions? That equates to 27 APD Officers to 1 Supervisor. In contrast, the Alaska State Troopers have about 400 Troopers and has approximately 45 command leadership positions. That compares to 8 Troopers for every one supervisor. That is a 3:1 ratio disparity. It is clear that the model of utilizing a system weighted down by a high number of costly supervisor positions is not the answer. It is expensive, bloated and encourages more managers than workers. DPS leadership has lost its way, and it starts at the top with the Governor and legislators that have a voting record of supporting him.
Legislators that supported Governor Walker’s drive to keep doing what we have been doing with the only answers being to hire more people, pay the ones we have more, and pass a terrible crime bill that undermines all law enforcement officers. These same legislators have failed Alaskans by not proposing any transformational solutions to the massive crime wave hitting Alaska. They jump to solutions and throw money at a complicated situation without actually trying to solve the root-cause of the problem.
We cannot expect an improvement to our crime issues by empowering and promoting the same people that built the current flawed system and have benefited from it. It is time to pivot, change our mindset, and bring in expert leadership with an understanding of how to make a paradigm shift from the old to the new. Many Alaskans know what it is like living outside the walls of the kingdom. I have seen it from the citizen perspective, as a rural resident growing up in a village along the Bering Sea, and as a state employee looking outward. Its time we take back Juneau and start demonstrating how leadership should be serving the people. Our legislators, governors, and executive branch appointed personnel works indirectly for us, and they should never treat us like subjects or surfs no matter how much we disagree with them. If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
Terrence Shanigan is a life-long Alaskan of Aleut descent. He was born in Kodiak, and his family lived seasonally between their home village of Pilot Point in Bristol Bay and Anchorage. Terrence is a 1989 graduate of Mount Edgecumbe High School, Navy veteran, and a teacher. Terrence has 17 years of law enforcement experience as a Master-At-Arms in the Navy, Alaska State Trooper, and Internal Affairs criminal investigator for the Department of Corrections. Terrence has worked for five Alaskan governors and has advised many local, state and tribal leaders on issues involving public safety and crime. Terrence is currently completing his Masters of Business Administration from Louisiana State University.