Fairbanks mayor shakes up police department

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Mayor Steve Thompson has appointed a new head of city police operations in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the department.

Thompson said differences with Police Chief James Welch were also a factor.

''It's not negative, but I do want to go in a different direction,'' Thompson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I want a fresh look with somebody that hasn't been there for 18 years.''

Thompson said Monday that he was creating the position of city police director and filling it with Paul Harris, a retired 21-year state trooper. As director, Harris is in charge of both the Fairbanks Police Department and the Police Corps, a police job-training program affiliated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Welch, a member of the force for almost two decades and police chief since 1997, has been relegated to second in command. As part of the job, Harris is charged with conducting a top-to-bottom review of the police department and presenting a reorganization plan to the city. The last review of the department was about six years ago, Welch said.

Thompson said the reasons for the review stemmed from a number of factors, including comments from the public and concerns about the effectiveness of the police department.

Thompson cited complaints from some businesses that inebriates were being redirected out of downtown and into other areas and a complaint from a Denny's that the 24-hour restaurant isn't getting adequate police response in the early morning hours.

''Are we responding to what the community expects us to respond to, are we doing all we can to prevent crime?'' he asked.

Thompson said the move was also motivated by larger questions, such as whether there are too many officers behind desks and not enough on patrol and whether the police can improve their grant-application process.

Thompson argues that the $75,000 that would be spent on Harris' position next year would pay for itself if it leads to more officers on patrol or ways to trim the police budget. The $75,000 appropriation for Thompson's salary needs approval of the City Council, which will consider it Monday.

Harris's job will be a temporary one, though Thompson said he doesn't expect it to be a short-term assignment and didn't rule out its becoming permanent. While one motivation behind the review is to study the department's cost-effectiveness, Thompson said Harris is not being given a mandate to find areas to cut. Rather, he said, Harris is to make general recommendations about improving the department.

Thompson acknowledged that his management style differs from that of Welch but wouldn't offer specifics. He didn't rule out Welch losing his job at the end of the review, but said he didn't expect that to happen.

''I don't foresee him losing it right now, but anything's possible.''

Thompson also said he has had concerns about the attitude of the police department, which he characterized as ''a little bit more standoffish'' than other city departments. ''I've got the impression the last year that all the departments were working together but that one,'' he said. ''I want to change that mentality, that thinking.''

Welch said he feels the department has always been willing to work with the city.

''We will take and receive input from any source, from inside and outside the city,'' he said. Welch said he believes the root of perceived problems with the police stem from a lack of resources afforded criminal justice in general.

''It's not just us, it's the whole system,'' he said. ''There are ears that don't want to hear that, they want to hear 'government needs to be more efficient.' Government can never be a business.''

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