Alaska law enforcement ranks the highest for most officers assaulted or killed on duty in recent years — a fact experts blame on law enforcement staffing shortages in the state.
According to a recent analysis of FBI statistics, the rate of assaults against officers in Alaska was the highest in the nation in 2020, with 64.6% of officers in the state reported to have been assaulted while on duty.
Anchorage Police Department and Alaska State Police officials blame the concerning numbers on staffing shortages, budget cuts and the inherent dangers of the job.
According to the Anchorage Police Department, the shortage of officers is not something they can rectify immediately, as the hiring process takes six months of training before potential officers are selected for training and certification at the academy.
Before the academy, recruits must undergo months of training with defensive and de-escalation tactics, in addition to four months of field training with an experienced officer after academy graduation.
Sergeant James Cockrell, the commissioner for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said the 2015 budget cuts resulted in a 10% staff reduction, which hasn’t recovered since.
He believes part of the reason for the high number of assaults is because the staff shortage often forces departments to send officers on calls alone, and added that the DPS is striving to increase funding for recruiting efforts and body cameras to bolster staff numbers and add more tools that can de-escalate encounters.
“We’re currently in the process of trying to get body cameras. That’s a priority of the department. We’ve asked for an appropriation of $3.6 million through the Legislature that hopefully, we think we’ve got really good support for, and then we just received a federal grant of $938,000,” Cockrell said.
Jeremy Conkling, the president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, said the use of body cameras could be helpful for presenting evidence in court and hopes they may discourage assaults on officers even if data so far has not shown that their presence reduces violent assaults.
“It’s one thing to read a report, and it’s one thing to hear the officer testify to it. It’s another thing to hear the audio. But when you see all of that in combination with the video, I think that’s really telling,” Conkling said.
Conkling said body-worn cameras might have an effect on de-escalating volatile encounters, which could reduce the number of assaults.
“What we do see is it causes police officers, at least initially, to pause and to sometimes react a little bit slower than they should be reacting when faced with a violent encounter,” Conkling said.