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Assessors Praise Unalaska's DPS, But Report Doesn't Cover Recent Allegations

Nov 22, 2017

The Unalaska Department of Public Safety.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

The Unalaska Department of Public Safety has received high marks in its first external review.

In February, the department hired Russell Consulting to perform the $40,000 assessment.

After delays, the company released its final report last month, praising Public Safety's commitment to excellence, its community engagement, and the job satisfaction amongst its staff.

“They’re one of the better departments in the state," said Greg Russell, CEO of the consulting firm. "Based on the feedback we got from those in the community -- those who participated in a survey, those we randomly interviewed on the street or in the businesses -- they are pleased with the level of services they’re getting.”

The report, however, is notably silent or contradictory on several contentious issues surrounding the police and fire divisions.

It does not mention a handful of allegations that Public Safety has faced in recent months: An outgoing city councilor attacked the department’s integrity and called a top police official “a convicted liar;” the City Council greenlit a third-party investigation, casting doubt on the department’s ability to conduct a fair inquiry; and multiple community members suggested the department may be pressuring fire officials to stay quiet on the controversial subject of restructuring.

The report avoids those charges because it's based primarily on data from February and March. But it does touch on the ongoing debate over department structure.

Russell spent a week on the island and interviewed roughly 100 Unalaskans, including Public Safety staff, city officials, and community members.

“We did not find anyone who was in support of dividing fire away from the police side of the house -- of making two standalone departments," he said. "As a matter of fact, we found information or opinions contrary to that."

Those findings don’t square with recent statements from current and former volunteer firefighters. They argued the fire division needs more autonomy from the police force to address issues of understaffing and insufficient funding.

New Fire Chief Arlie Colvin has declined to comment on the matter.

Interim City Manager Nancy Peterson and Public Safety Director Mike Holman also declined to be interviewed for this story.

Deputy Police Chief Jennifer Shockley, however, said Russell’s findings aren’t unexpected.

“I can’t say the results surprise me," said Shockley. "I mean, the department has been combined for more than a couple of decades. Clearly, [given] the fact that people come up to speak out about it, there are some areas of concern. But it doesn’t change my opinion that we have an effective model right now.”

Shockley said one of the areas of concern is the working relationship between fire officials and their supervisors.

The report states: “Both paid [fire] staff denied meaningful contact with agency administration. Neither of the paid staff was knowledgeable of […] fire department policies or procedures.”

Shockley said Public Safety expects that to improve now that the department has filled the fire chief vacancy after 16 months.

"When we go through periods when there’s not an administrator there, there are things that can fall through the cracks," she said. "Things get set aside, and a feeling of good integration may be one of them.”

Shockley said the department is also acting on several of Russell’s recommendations for improvement. That includes updating policies and procedures, keeping more thorough records for staff training, and considering an accreditation program.