With police officer recruitment and retention a constant struggle, the Kodiak Police Department is banking on a new reality TV show to draw new manpower to The Rock.
“Alaska PD” will premiere Jan. 1, giving viewers a glimpse into the lives of police officers in Kodiak, Fairbanks, Kotzebue and Petersburg. The show was filmed by Engel Entertainment and will air on the A&E network.
According to Stephanie Angelides, the show’s executive producer, the idea for the show came from an article she read about a town in Alaska that was asking for officers to come up from the Lower 48 because the local police department was understaffed.
“That sparked the idea to start to dig in a little further and I realized that this is an issue across Alaska,” she said. “It turns out officers from the Lower 48 do come up to these departments and try to make Alaska their new home and make this work. And it’s not as easy as it seems.”
While the article that Angelides read wasn’t about Kodiak, the issue strikes close to home. The Kodiak Police Department is short-staffed, with three officer positions open, and another officer slated to leave next month. According to Sgt. Francis de la Fuente, the department is almost always missing officers. He hopes that participating in the show will draw attention to Kodiak.
“We want to see if it can be a hiring tool for Kodiak,” de la Fuente said.
One of the local police officers followed by camera crews when filming took place in Kodiak earlier this year is Sgt. Michael Sortor, who has worked for the Kodiak Police Department for 10 years.
“Initially I was never supposed to be a part of the show. The premise of the show was to focus on new people that were coming from the Lower 48 that were new to Alaska,” he said. “But the producers quickly learned that there was a balance between locals and newer people.”
Sortor said that as a veteran officer in Kodiak, he focuses on community policing, or working together with the community.
“There is a tendency when people look at us to just see a uniform,” he said. However, he said that to be successful in Kodiak, police officers must “become an integral part of the community, or else you’re just a tourist.”
New York based showrunner John X. Kim, who has been involved in the production of numerous law enforcement TV shows across the country, said he noticed that community policing is more important in Kodiak than anywhere else he has filmed.
“In Kodiak it is so infused in what they do and how they do their job. You’re not just the cop. You’re going to run into people that you ticketed or arrested in the supermarket or at a traffic light. That’s part of the reality of being a police officer in Kodiak,” he said. “Kodiak officers really do seem to have a more intimate relationshi) with the residents, and I hope that comes across. Kodiak residents should feel blessed to have this department of officers who really do feel that they are part of the community.”
According to Sortor, the biggest problem with retaining new officers in Kodiak is pay. The starting salary for police officers on the island hovers at $22 per hour, lower than competing salaries at the Anchorage Police Department and with the Alaska State Troopers. Starting pay for troopers is $35 per hour. Sortor said that the majority of Kodiak police officers apply to the Anchorage Police Department before considering Kodiak.
“You’re taking a very difficult job,” he said, adding that it’s hard for officers to socialize and go out to bars where they might have done rounds earlier that week. “I see a make-or-break period in the first three years.”
Sortor said the problem is particularly challenging for young professionals who are not married or socially attached, and must contend with the high cost of living on the island alongside the social isolation.
“The dating scene for a single officer is not good at all. You’re on an island, you’re isolated,” he said. “It’s very hard to take a stressful job, figure out where to live, not be able to go out socially. Many end up working overtime and burning themselves to the ground.”
Some police departments that are featured in reality television shows experience significant upticks in recruitment, going from position vacancies to waitlists. However, because Kodiak is isolated, Sortor said such a high recruitment spike would be unlikely.
“An extra five to 10 applicants (per year) would be good,” he said.
When Sortor joined the Kodiak department, he tested against 25 other applicants. He says that now, the department is lucky if six to eight people apply for an open position. The decline in interest in Kodiak is part of a nationwide decline in interest in police work.
“People might admire it, but they don’t want to do it,” Sortor said.
He added that while the show might bring in some quality applicants, it could also attract applicants who see the show and think the job of being a police officer in Kodiak is easier than it is in reality. Sortor hopes that in addition to highlighting the police department, the show also draws more attention to the beauty of Kodiak, and brings more tourists to the island.
Kim said that many officers who came to Alaska from the Lower 48 were attracted by the scenery. But for some, it was not enough to convince them to stay.
“We see Alaska and it’s a gorgeous place. Why would you not want to live there? But a lot of the officers don’t last. They end up leaving because of the issue of fit,” he said. “People come in with certain expectations of what the job will be and the job is different from what they expected. And they don’t last. That’s the reality that Kodiak PD faces.”
“You have to accept Alaska on its own terms,” Kim said. “Once you do that, you will be a better Alaska officer.”
Angelides said she expects that many viewers will fall in love with Kodiak’s beauty through the show.
“I think viewers are going to become obsessed not only with the officers, but with the visuals of Kodiak,” she said. “They are going to love your home so much, and the stories make it that much better.”
Kim said the show emphasizes differences between policing in Alaska and in the Lower 48.
“There are some moments in the series where they learn for the first time that certain things that are crimes in the Lower 48 just aren’t crimes in Alaska,” Kim said, speaking about officers new to Alaska. “Those are the things that make Alaska policing very unique.”
In Alaska, being drunk in public is not a criminal offence. However, it is a criminal offence in other parts of the U.S. However, in Alaska it is illegal for bars to continue serving patrons once they are drunk, and policemen have to do bar checks as part of their rounds.
However, Kim and Angelides agreed that the most unique aspect of policing in Kodiak is the bears. The TV show follows policemen as they chase bears out of residential areas, a common occurrence in Kodiak that may seem unusual to viewers in the Lower 48.
“I’m still answering questions from A&E about the bears,” Sortor said.
Sortor said that the filming process required building trust between the television crews and the officers. With additional people on the scene, he was no longer worried only about himself and his partner while pursuing a bear in the woods. He was also worried about the people filming the action.
“It was really strange at first. You’re used to being solitary in your car for the most part,” he said. “We’re used to cameras. We have body cameras, dash cameras. But having them turn the cameras on us, it took some getting used to.”
The film crews focused on how the officers solved problems on the scene.
“It’s something we teach all our new guys — our job isn’t just to arrest people. Our job is to solve problems,” Sortor said.
Angelides said that film crews will return to Kodiak briefly to get footage from additional local businesses for future episodes of the show.
“(Alaska PD) is not just about the officers and the cases that they’re handling. It’s about a unique community with a way of life that is different from that of the average viewer,” she said. “When we were filming we thought that there were some interesting businesses in town that we want to stay in touch with and see if there is something more to be done filming-wise with them.”
For Sortor, despite the challenges of being a policeman in Kodiak, he says it is a great job.
“They say you have a ticket to the greatest show on earth, and that’s absolutely true,” he said. “You get to see the depth of humanity but also the worst that humans can do. It’s makes you value things and it’s humbling. In a small town like Kodiak, we see the full gamut of things you see as an officer — homicides and drug busts, but also Shop With a Cop and school visits.”
“Once you’re really integrated with the community, people are grateful you’re here,” he said. “In a place like Kodiak, we all kind of get glued together. That’s an experience in law enforcement that you wouldn’t get in a large city. You could only get it in a place like this.”
The first episode of “Alaska PD” will air Jan. 1 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The second episode will air Jan. 9 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Subsequent episodes will air Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.