Homer city officials have been discussing the need for a new public safety building. The proposed facility would house the police station, fire hall and the jail at a cost of about $15 million.
Let’s start out with what Police Chief Mark Robl said is one of the biggest concerns for the current building: the jail.
“The air-handling system in the jail is connected to the rest of the building. And I’ve had some contractors in to look at it and there’s no way they can really divide it because of the way the building is designed. So that means that the air the prisoners are exhaling is the air we’re breathing on this side of the wall,” he said.
Any airborne illnesses travel through the vents and into the main section of the building where officers and dispatchers work. The jail only has seven beds, and Robl said there’s been a steady uptick in the number of arrests over the last year. There’s no room for them.
“When we exceed our occupancy, we’re a 10-day-hold facility. That’s the maximum length of time we can hold a prisoner. So if we have more prisoners than we can handle at one time, or if they have longer than 10 days to serve, they have to go to Wildwood. It’s a constant shuffle of prisoners back and forth. That’s another strain,” Robl said.
He said typically Homer officers have one prisoner-transport a week up to the central peninsula if the state can’t handle it. The space officers work in is cramped and Robl said it’s difficult at times to make phone calls and finish paperwork with the amount of noise in the area.
More technology has been a bit of a blessing and a curse for the station as well. The dispatchers have six computer screens to look at during their shift with radios on at all times. There are wires everywhere.
“Our building was not designed for the computer age,” Robl said. “So that’s a big problem. We have radio antenna wire and network cabling and power cabling all running the same area. And that causes interference problems.”
And the amount of heat all that technology generates is hard on the equipment. It was a toasty temperature on a cold, blustery day, but in the summer it’s a different story.
“It’s an issue. It gets really warm. We don’t have any air conditioning in the building, so that causes premature failure of some of this electronic equipment,” Robl said.
It’s the same problem in the room that controls the entire radio system for the police. It’s in an old storage closet that isn’t ventilated. They can only retrofit that building so much. Robl said there have been times when a piece of equipment has failed and officers weren’t able to make contact with the station. And some of that technology is expensive to replace. He said one recent replacement cost about $13,000.
Moving through the building, Robl said another glaring issue is safety when a prisoner is brought in for booking. The tight corridor is next to stairs that go up to the evidence room or into the main part of the building where there are unarmed workers. Robl said “that’s not ideal.”
“They can get anywhere into the building. In most jails, prisoners come in through a system of double-door locks. Then they’re right in the jail. They have no access to the rest of the building like they do here,” he said.
Robl said there have been times when prisoners have escaped and officers have chased them down as well.
Handling evidence properly can be a struggle. Robl said if officers need to search a vehicle that was involved in a crime they go to the public works building in one of the bays there because there’s no covered garage at the station. That leads to overtime and less than ideal conditions for sorting through evidence.
Even in the building, Robl said officers don’t have access to necessary equipment due to a lack of space. If they can’t process something on site, they ship it to the crime lab in Anchorage. But that has its own set of problems.
“You try to package it up the best you can to transport it to the crime lab as safely as you can, but just by the nature of the evidence being delicate and fragile it can be damaged in transit and we can lose that evidence forever,” he said.
Robl said the current building probably was suitable for the town in the 1970s when it was built. But crime has been steadily rising as the population of Homer and the surrounding areas has increased. He said the new building needs to fit the needs now. And he has a wish list for that facility.
“I think more space is number one. Number two is having the design of the building fit the needs of the… modern day police department. Having the design of the building accommodate some of the emergency services we’re able to provide out of dispatch,” he said.
Robl said he hopes as more people understand the limitations of the current police station, more will get on board for supporting a new public safety building.
The Homer City Council recently appropriated $300,000 from the fire and police departments and general depreciation reserve funds for design work for the proposed facility.
The council also is seeking about $1.5 million from state lawmakers to help with design and engineering plans. The new building is expected to go where the Homer Education and Recreational Complex, or HERC building, currently sits.