Editor’s Note: This week was National Police Week, and the Empire is highlighting Juneau police chief Ed Mercer, who was promoted to chief of police in July 2017.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Ed Mercer still remembers the night vividly.
It was near midnight on a January night in Sitka in 1994, and Mercer was in his second year working for the Sitka Police Department. He was driving near the harbor when the call came in: a baby had been found in a bathroom at the harbor.
Mercer was the closest officer and arrived on the scene first. There he found the harbor employee Kelly Warren, holding a small newborn in his arms.
“I think that was touching,” Mercer recalled, “and told me a lot about humanity.”
Mercer said there was certainly a negative light to be seen that night, but he saw the positive side of the story, of this man saving the baby from a dire situation.
A fire department responder arrived moments later and took over, but the instance still sticks with Mercer. That baby grew up to make headlines in Southeast Alaska in 2012, when she returned to Sitka as a high school graduate with her adopted family. She had grown up and was succeeding in school in Florida, an article in the Daily Sitka Sentinel said.
Through 26 years of being in the police force in Sitka and Juneau, Mercer has encountered numerous examples of that kind of positive humanity in extreme scenarios. He’s seen it as an officer in Sitka, and then in numerous positions with the Juneau Police Department since joining JPD in 2000.
Now, he’s doing it as the department’s chief of police, and his ascent to the position has come in historic fashion.
Not taking it lightly
Mercer, by all accounts, is JPD’s first Alaska Native chief of police. Raised in Sitka, Mercer is of a Tlingit of the Coho clan of the Raven moiety.
The department was created in 1900, according to the department’s website, and created the chief of police title in 1914. Since then, JPD Administrative Assistant Patti Rumfelt said, the department had 36 chiefs of police prior to Mercer. Spokespeople at JPD and at Native Corporations Sealaska and Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) can’t recall a Native chief prior to Mercer.
“It is meaningful,” Mercer said. “I do get a lot of people, a lot of elders, a lot of the other Alaska Native people come up to me and say, ‘We’re really proud of you for what you have accomplished and we appreciate that you represent us.’ I don’t take that lightly.”
Mercer made it clear that he knows he’s representing the entire Juneau community and not just the Native population. According to census.gov, 11.8 percent of Juneau residents are Alaska Native or American Indian.
Mercer’s promotion carries a great deal of meaning to leaders in the Native community. Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl put Mercer’s hiring in a nationwide context in a statement to the Empire.
“After 150 years of American jurisdiction in Alaska, we should celebrate the appointment of Ed Mercer as Juneau’s first Alaska Native chief of police,” Worl said. “Implementation of the law and pursuit of justice should be color blind, but statistics and the almost daily reports in the media across the nation do not bear this out.”
Worl pointed out that Alaska Natives are disproportionately incarcerated in Alaska jails. According to PrisonPolicy.org, Alaska Natives/American Indians made up 38 percent of the state’s prison population in the 2010 census, while Alaska Natives/American Indians make up 15 percent of the state’s total population.
CCTHITA President Richard Peterson said in a statement to the Empire that those at his organization are excited and prideful that Mercer has worked his way up to the role of chief.
“There are approximately 7,000 of our tribal citizens who live in Juneau and it is encouraging to see that population reflected in our police force who is tasked with serving and protecting our community,” Peterson said.
‘It could be you’
Mercer views being police chief as a chance to be a role model, providing motivation for Alaska Native children and others who want to become leaders in the community.
“I think it’s very important to be able to show, especially to an Alaska Native, that the sky’s the limit,” Mercer said. “You go out and apply yourself and there’s opportunity out there. It could be you.”
Long before he was atop JPD and even before he was an officer in Sitka, Mercer wanted to be a schoolteacher. He grew up in Sitka, pondering a career in the military before attending University of Alaska Fairbanks to study education.
After a couple years, Mercer decided he wanted to try something new. Growing up in Sitka, he knew there was a police training academy there. The opportunity to give back to a community, he said, encouraged him to enter the police force.
“I think my main reason for getting into it was I wanted to be a public servant and go out and serve people,” Mercer said. “I don’t think that has left me to this point. Even as the chief of police, I’m out there being a public servant and serving people.”
In the early 1990s when Mercer was looking for a job, it was a competitive field that required him to compete against others for a position on a police force. Twenty-six years later, police departments around the country are struggling to fill their staffs. Mercer is currently working to fill JPD’s staff, which is undermanned and losing a couple more officers this summer to retirement.
Being in this role, Mercer hopes, will show to young people that if they put the effort forth, they can go from a young kid in a small village to the chief of a capital city’s police department.
“I like to think that it shows people a role model, that they could do the very same thing,” Mercer said. “They could take up and head a police department as long as they apply themself and go out and do it. It is meaningful.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.