Troopers looking for a few good people

Posted: Monday, December 04, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska State Troopers are at a nearly all-time staffing low and are struggling to find new officers.

The agency is losing an average of 15 troopers a year who retire, transfer or quit, Deputy Public Safety Commissioner Del Smith says.

The agency will continue to lose troopers, with nearly 40 percent of the officers eligible for retirement within the next year. At the same time, the troopers are struggling to find people who want to join and who are good enough to do the job.

The troopers have gone to some lengths to attract newcomers. They started a several-thousand-dollar television and newspaper campaign, they've sent recruiters to job fairs and conferences and they've targeted people retiring from the military.

They also have tried to encourage older troopers to stay on the job longer, and they may begin a reserve program for teen-agers out of high school who hope to join the agency when they turn 21, Smith said.

Public Safety Commissioner Glenn Godfrey even sent out a directive to current troopers to actively recruit, one of the best ways to bring in new officers.

Still the number of potential troopers has declined. Six graduated Friday, and six more are expected to graduate in March.

Major Jim Cockrell, a Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper based in Anchorage, said he remembers when 2,000 people would apply for a handful of positions.

Now there might be only half that many. While that sounds like it should be more than enough, most don't make it past the background checks and polygraph and psychological tests, he said.

Among other requirements, troopers must be at least 21 and never have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor where someone was seriously hurt. They must not have used marijuana during the past two years or any other illegal drug during the past 10 years.

''We'll be lucky to get 20- or 25 qualified applicants'' out of the 1,000, Cockrell told the Anchorage Daily News.

That's just the first cut. Some fail the academy in Sitka. Others won't make it past the six-month probation where they are supervised by another trooper.

A tight job market and less than competitive wages also are blamed.

Average starting pay for a trooper is a little more than $45,000 a year. That compares well against an average wage statewide of around $33,000, but most of those jobs don't include the possibility of being shot at, Perrin said.

Along with that, fewer people are in the main trooper recruiting age bracket -- ages 21 to 30 -- than there were a decade ago, said Neil Fried, an economist with the state labor department.

The work force shortage is not limited to the Alaska State Troopers. Police departments nationwide are struggling to recruit, Smith said. Some are raiding other departments.

Juneau picked up an officer recently from the Sitka Police Department, and Seattle police made headlines a few years back for recruiting Hawaii-based officers.

Alaska's trooper shortage has come about even though the agency has seen its numbers shrink by nearly a quarter over the past two decades. It now has nearly 330 troopers, including fish and wildlife officers.

That number compares with a peak of 440 in 1983. The cuts are a result of state funding declines.

At some point, the appeal of working for the troopers has to go beyond the paycheck, Cockrell said.

''I've enjoyed this job 18 years, and I wouldn't trade those years,'' he said. ''I get to travel all over the state, get to fly airplanes, run boats and help people out.''

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