Concerns over a hostile workplace culture surfaced Tuesday night, during a presentation to the Sitka Assembly calling for higher police wages. Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt said that high turnover in his department was more than a matter of pay. The problem stemmed in part from an environment he described as “completely toxic” prior to his arrival. The assembly opened public testimony on the matter and learned that not everyone agrees with the chief’s assessment.
Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt says the police department has a major retention problem. Making his case during a scheduled discussion of police issues he asked assembly members to consider a $5 an hour increase for police officers. He says keeping the department staffed isn’t a new problem.
“The way we have been doing it has been very wasteful,” Ankerfelt said. “This attrition, this turnover that’s been occurring, historically, pretty consistently for almost a decade has cost us money. It’s cost us roughly $2.4 million in overtime, just for short shifts. Not enough people to work. Since 2010, 32 police officers have been hired and then quit the police department.”
Right now, Ankerfelt says the department is staffed at 12 when they have the capacity to hire 16. Two of those twelve are on administrative leave pending litigation and two to three more officers are likely to leave Sitka before the end of the year, including Ankerfelt himself.
“This would leave Sitka with a total of five to six officers or less than one-third the minimum of officers needed to provide service, competent service to our community,” he said.
Ankerfelt doesn’t attribute all of this turnover to low pay. He says poor facilities and workplace culture have contributed as well.
“Historically, the Sitka Police Department has been a depressing place to work,” Ankerfelt said. “When I first started there I thought the environment was completely toxic. It was ‘Lord of the Flies.’ And that challenge persists today.”
And competing jobs that pay better. Ankerfelt and city administrator Keith Brady noted that two of the officers leaving were doing so for jobs with the state troopers that offered better pay.
“We understand that compensation like this is not a silver bullet to the issues that we have with the PD, but it’s something that we can do to help with at least recruitment potentially retention for the longterm,” Brady said. “When the troopers did increase their pay, their academies are full right now.”
Brady says the current short staffing means a pay raise of $5 would be budget neutral right now. But Deputy Mayor Stephen Eisenbeisz wondered if he could get more information.
“You call it a recruitment and retention plan, when all I see is ‘let’s pay them more.’ I want to know what you’re going to do to increase recruitment, what you’re going to do to increase retention as well, because money is but a small part of that,” Eisenbeisz said.
After hearing Ankerfelt’s proposal, the assembly formally suspended the rules, and opened the floor to public comment. Officers Ryan Silva and Mary Ferguson spoke together. Both officers have filed separate whistleblower suits against the city for harassment and discrimination. Jury trial for Silva’s case is set for September of this year. The city denies the allegations in both cases, but when Ferguson spoke, she called for the city to intervene in the management of the Police Department, claiming the department’s workplace culture was a top-down problem.
“I’ve been asking for the city to make the Police Department a safe place to work. By safe I mean a non-hostile work environment and a command who doesn’t lead by way of fear, retaliation, and humiliation,” Ferguson said. “Your workplace should not feel like ‘Survivor Island’ and members should not feel exiled.”
Later, during persons to be heard, officer Jayson Christner spoke in favor of current leadership at the department.
“I’ve been in Sitka since 1985. I’ve had a lot of positions in town, a lot of jobs. I really like coming to work. I really enjoy being there. The people who are there right now, they care about Sitka,” Christner said.
Ankerfelt said that while he’s leaving, he hopes his proposal to raise officers’ wages won’t go with him.
“In many ways I’m only considered a carpetbagger in this town, I’m only here for a minute,” Ankerfelt said. “We’ll outlast the carpetbagger, the guy who wants to make the changes. We’ll drive him out of town. But there’s a reason for that. And that’s the historical lack of leadership, poor working conditions, a lack of hope, and direction and purpose.”
The assembly directed city staff and Ankerfelt to continue developing a comprehensive recruitment and retention plan for the assembly to review at a future meeting.