The Sitka Police Department does not have its own building. Since 1975, it has shared a building with various State of Alaska offices. (KCAW File Photo)

The Sitka Police Department is facing many challenges, namely staffing shortages, three active lawsuits, and a potential investigation into the workplace culture within the station’s walls.

But those walls — and the rest of the building itself — may be a contributing factor to low staff morale and the department’s ability to attract new officers, according to department leaders.

The Sitka Police Department does not have its own building. Since 1975, it shares a building with various State of Alaska offices.

“It’s an older building and you can see it,” police Sergeant Lance Ewers said on a KCAW tour of the facility, comparing the department’s interior with those of other Sitka institutions like the public library, the fire department and Harrigan Centennial Hall.

“At this point, in the history of the city, it’s the police department’s turn, if you will,” he said.

In total, the department takes up around 6,400 square feet of the roughly 20,000 square feet structure, about a third of the total usable floor space.  Per an agreement with the City and Borough of Sitka, the state reimburses the city a third of the building’s maintenance costs.

A new facility would mean more than just a pretty building, Ewers said. It would enable the department to be a more efficient and effective police force.

The current space is too small as it was not designed to be a police station of this size in the first place, he said. That’s meant using certain spaces for multiple purposes.

The staff break room, for example, doubles as an evidence processing room. Here, officers process evidence and confiscated narcotics.

“Then you’re eating your turkey sandwich too, you know? It’s just not okay,” Ewers said. “You’re going through people’s backpacks, you’re pulling out hypodermic needles or heroin, right in the same area.”

The police station is also running out of space to store evidence, some of which has to be kept in rented storage lockers.

A long list of inadequacies with the current building forces officers to make do, or look for workarounds. If the electricity goes out, the building’s generator can’t power the whole station, just dispatch. The security camera system doesn’t cover the whole station. And officers don’t have a well-ventilated area to clean their firearms, which is done with an alcohol-based solvent.

There’s no locker room for employees — much less a shower — which means if officers stain their uniforms with blood or other biological or chemical hazards encountered on the job, they have to run home for a change of clothes.

That’s one of many inefficient-but-necessary workarounds, Ewers said.

The women’s side of the prison is made up of two cells, each with a bunk bed, stool, desk and toilet. They also have box heaters to keep those in custody warm. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

Sitka Jail is ‘Borderline Medieval’

Temperature is hard to regulate within the building. Staff rely on box heaters for warmth and in the summer, they prop open doors to the outside to encourage ventilation.

But conditions are especially bad for people in custody, Ewers said.

“We even have box heaters here,” he said. “Ideally, in a new a facility we would have a more modern jail that would be less medieval, if you will. Because this is borderline medieval.”

Cells contain plastic beds, stools, desks bolted to the floor and walls, and a metal toilet. But no cell has windows to the outside and prisoners have no area to recreate, inside or out. All that’s available is a library of used books and a small television behind some plexiglass at the end of the jail hallway.

This isn’t up to modern standards, Ewers said.

“This was modern in 1960, but I don’t know of too many jails that look like this anymore,” he said.

Modern laws have also outpaced the 43-year-old Sitka Jail. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, juveniles can be held in jail briefly to protect them and the public, or to ensure court appearances.

But the jail is not equipped to house juveniles and keep them separated from adult offenders as required by law. Instead, they’re handcuffed to a metal rail.

The jail is also not equipped to care for individuals with mental impairments, who require specialized cell furniture to prevent injuries.

It’s also not adequate for anyone with physical disabilities, as prisoners have to step over a concrete barrier to take a shower. It keeps water from flooding the hallway and makes the jail non-compliant with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

If there is flooding in one jail cell, there’s no way to isolate other cells from the migrating water.

Although the Sitka Jail is a temporary holding facility, people can find themselves behind bars here for 2 to 3 months, far longer than the jail is meant for. Prisoners are supposed to be flown out to bigger facilities by the state of Alaska, but that doesn’t always happen, Ewers said.

“Not only just a few, but many of your tax dollars are going into funding this jail because the state is not holding their side of the bargain,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a 10-day holding facility.  No human being is supposed to be in our jail for more than 10 days, and this is why. I mean, look at this place.”

Women can have an especially hard time at the Sitka Jail. Female prisoners are housed on the opposite side of the jail, separated from the men. Their side is composed of two cells, each with one bunk bed and solid metal doors. These cells don’t have windows either.

Family visitation is also made problematic by the facility. There’s no visitation room in the women’s side of the jail, which means visitors see female family members in custody through the bars of the main jail door, standing out on a hallway.

“I understand jail isn’t some place that needs to be a five-star hotel,” Ewers said. “But there comes a point in time when a person has to ask, ‘Is it a little unusually cruel to put somebody here for the amount of time they have to be here for?’”

Police Sergeant Lance Ewers shows off the antiquated computer system used by the department to file reports. It runs on DOS, an operating system popular in the 1980s. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

$14 Million Funding Challenge

The City of Sitka is aware of the poor state of the building. That’s thanks to Lorraine Lil, a resident of Sitka who until recently was a member of the Police and Fire Commission.

Since she learned about the state of the building, she’s been a persistent advocate of the SPD before the Chamber of Commerce and the Sitka Assembly. As a retired registered nurse, when she learned about the state of the building she was especially concerned for the health of officers and staff working there.  

“And I felt that with all these hazards, something needed to be done immediately and waiting was not an option,” she said. “It is a hazard to work in that building.  And it is a hazard for the prisoners to be in that building.”

Lil approached then-city administrator Mark Gorman to look into the issue. The city subsequently contracted Stantec Architecture Inc. to look into the feasibility of constructing a new facility for SPD –one built exclusively for the department with about three times more floor space.

They also explored the possibility of renovating and expanding the current facility that the State of Alaska and the City and Borough of Sitka share, according to a draft report obtained by KCAW.

Stantec concluded that  the current facility “sorely lacks” space, and rehabilitating the existing facility would require “significant effort at significant cost, even before the facility is expanded.”

They found two potential build sites based on factors like zoning, visibility, potential for growth, and the tsunami flood zone: the current police department’s parking lot and the old incinerator site.

The Old City Shops site was another potential site, but has already been donated to the Sitka Community Land Trust for an affordable housing project, the Halibut Point Cottages.

Subcontractor Tosina LLC estimated the construction cost for a new building to range from $13.3 to $14 million, depending on the site — a challenge for a city that is already under financial strain.

Tosina also pointed to potential funding sources from federal, state, and private grants from institutions like the U.S. Department of Justice, the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, and the Rasmuson Foundation.

But for Lil, it’s not a simple question of money.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “What would the city of Sitka be without their police officers? We want them to be in an environment that’s safe. And it is not safe.”

An organizational chart in the police department’s break room, pictured on Feb 5, 2019, shows vacancies in white frames which once held staff portraits. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

Short Staffed PD Leaves Officers Sleeping With One Eye Open

Sergeant Ewers knows getting funding for an upgraded facility would be a challenge, just as it has been for other upgrades to the police department. The computer system that intakes and stores police reports and other data, for example, runs on DOS, an operating system popular in the 1980s.

“We don’t have the technology to report the proper data to the proper agencies that want to track what’s happening across America,” Ewers said. “Everything is money. Do you have the money to upgrade or not?”

A new facility is not the only thing SPD leaders would like to see funded in the future. In an effort to mitigate turnover and attract new police officers, Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt petitioned the Sitka Assembly to raise wages for officers last month.

Sitka Assembly members resisted the idea, saying they’d like the department to do more than throw money at the problem. But Ankerfelt says spending money for the police department now means saving money in the long run.

According to Ankerfelt, the department has spent roughly $7 million in staff turnover over the nine years. The cost of employing a person for a year before they’re fully trained and productive is $150,000, he said.

Staff shortages also take a toll on officers already employed by the police department. Weeks of overtime and rare days off are taxing on officers, and impairs the department’s effectiveness, Ankerfelt said.

“I really really worry about our ability to respond appropriately to the needs of the community,” he said. “I feel really rather desperate because I take personal accountability and responsibility for that. We need to fix this.”

A town the size of Sitka should have 18 officers, including police leadership, Ankerfelt said. But because of cuts to the city budget, SPD is only authorized to hire 16.

However, with high staff turnover and an inability to attract new officers to open positions, plus ongoing lawsuits that put two detectives on administrative leave, the department is left with 10 officers on the force.

“It’s just the perfect storm of bad things for us,” Ankerfelt said.

On top of that, a sergeant may leave in the fall for personal reasons. And recently, another two officers considered leaving SPD for better paying jobs in the Alaska State Troopers, Ankerfelt says.

They were ultimately not hired by the Troopers. But if those three officers do leave the department and they’re not replaced with new hires, Sitka could be left with just seven police officers.

“Then what we’re facing is periods of service where there are no officers working or we have one and some of us are sleeping with one eye open to respond,” he said. “I have communicated that without action, we should anticipate to ask the state of Alaska for help.

The Sitka Police Department is not the only law enforcement agency in the nation suffering from a shortage of police officers. The staffing level of Alaska State Troopers in the Mat-Su West and Palmer posts was described as “barely adequate” by researchers in the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. Officer shortages in nearby Seattle have driven the department to consider assigning detectives to patrol duty. Even the FBI has seen a drop in it’s applicant pool, from 68,500 in 2009 to just 11,500 in 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Department of Justice, the number of full-time sworn officers in general-purpose law enforcement increased by 52,000 between 1997 and 2016. But the growing U.S. population has outpaced that growth. The number of officers in the nation per 1,000 residents fell from 2.42 officers to 2.17 — a drop of about 11 percent.

An excess of job openings in larger, well funded law enforcement agencies increases the rate of turnover in small departments like Sitka’s, which can’t offer a pay rate to compete and sometimes lacks resources to support officers on the job, Ankerfelt said.

He also believes people don’t see law enforcement as a desirable career nowadays due in great part to the discord and conflict potential applicants see between departments, local governments, and the communities they serve.

In Sitka, that may be especially true considering three pending lawsuits from employees alleging mistreatment. Ankerfelt worries the lawsuits and a potential investigation into the department’s work culture may affect public perception of the department.

“That’s something I lay awake at night thinking about,” he said. “How does that impact our current ability to deliver service, the confidence that people might have — or lack of confidence — and how will that affect our ability to move this organization forward like we want to?”

At its March 26, 2019, meeting, the Sitka Assembly authorized $35,000 for an investigation of the police department, and the issues that led to the employee lawsuits. Ankerfelt believes an investigation will serve to restore the public’s faith in local police.

“I want people in our own community to say that’s an organisation that’s proud and has a great deal of pride and I want to be a part of that,” he said.

And he maintains that new officers and a modern building are also a key part of rebuilding trust. But Ankerfelt knows any request for funding is a big ask right now.

“I think it’s going to be some time before we see a new facility,” he said. “There’s investments in schools and the care for our elderly that need to come first. I think it’s going to take some time.”

For now, a new building may have to stay in the department’s long wish list of investments and improvements.