AK State Troopers say cuts may force them out of urban areas

Alaska State Troopers. Photo: Monica Gokey/ Alaska Public Media file photo.
Alaska State Troopers. (File photo by Monica Gokey, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

This week Governor Bill Walker released his version of next year’s budget, and the community of Whittier contracted with its big city neighbor to the North on a deal to provide law enforcement for an Anchorage suburb.

The seemingly unrelated events may shape things to come.

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On Dec. 21, the city of Anchorage finalized a three-year contract with the small city of Whittier to provide police officers for Girdwood. The ski resort town is Anchorage’s southernmost suburb and, until recently, was policed by Alaska State Troopers. Girdwood was left without law enforcement when the Trooper post there closed this summer, so a Girdwood public safety committee hammered out the cop-sharing scheme with Whittier, paid for by Girdwood taxpayers.

“To my knowledge, this relationship has not existed anywhere else in Alaska, that I know of,” Girdwood Board Chair Sam Daniel said. “But in these times of fiscal restraint, it may end up being a trend, especially if Troopers keep having their budget cut.”

Daniel said the cooperative policing arrangement may be a first, but it may not be the last. Alaska State Trooper director Colonel James Cockrell said the Troopers face a budget decrease next year.

“We’re at a breaking point right now providing the amount of services that we are required to do statewide, and we are not meeting the core functions of our division,” Cockrell said. “And we are struggling to keep up with the calls in the Mat-Su. The Y-K Delta with all the sexual assaults and domestic violence, we’re not keeping up with that. And when you look at the Fairbanks area and elsewhere in the state, we are not keeping up with the amount of calls.”

If the governor’s budget passes, it will mean the Troopers’ division has absorbed $10 million in budget cuts over three years.

Cockrell said the end result is a reduction in Trooper manpower.

“We’ve lost 32 Trooper positions in two years,” Cockrell said. “No time in the history of the Alaska State Troopers have we lost that many positions in that short a time.”

Cockrell said the Girdwood post was closed because reductions in manpower forced the Trooper division to re-deploy the Girdwood Troopers to Seward and Soldotna.

Governor Walker’s proposed FY 2018 budget has a little more money in it for the Public Safety department, but the boost is misleading because the increase is restricted.

Kelly Howell, director of administrative services for the Public Safety Department, said the increase actually reflects federal grant money for the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

“So the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence had received increases in their federal grant award,” Howell said. “In this year’s budget, we asked for an increase in that federal receipt authority to be able to receive and spend those federal dollars.”

Howell said about 83 percent of the Public Safety Department’s annual budget comes from unrestricted funds, and the Walker budget actually reflects a decrease of $2 million for the Department overall.

Alaska leads the nation in sexual assault and domestic violence per capita. Cockrell said his division has to balance reductions in manpower with an escalation in the amount of calls it gets.

“If you look at crime in Alaska, it is on an uptick,” Cockrell said. “And not even small crimes, but the seriousness of crimes are climbing, and assaults on our police officers are growing. And we are asking our troopers to go and handle domestic violences with one person. There is no other police department in the U.S. that will only send one police officer to an on-going domestic violence, and we do that routinely. We routinely go out to the villages to handle gun calls with one or two Troopers, anywhere else they would send a SWAT team, and we are doing it with two Troopers.”

With a state legislature bent on further budget reductions, yet offering little in the way of solutions, Cockrell said there are bound to be further Trooper post shutdowns. Talkeetna’s post has already closed, while Haines’ is slated to lose one Trooper position.

As to further changes on the horizon, Cockrell said the Troopers are primarily charged with service to Alaska’s outlying areas, not its cities.

“I think that at some point in time, that is going to have to be looked at, just like we are trying to get out of the Municipality of Anchorage, where they have police powers, is to move the Troopers out of urban areas, and move them to rural areas, where we have a long tradition of providing police services,” Cockrell said.

Cockrell said some organized Boroughs are getting Trooper enforcement for free, and that may have to end. He pointed specifically to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, an area the size of West Virginia with no law enforcement beyond the small city police forces in Palmer and Wasilla. Cockrell said the Mat-Su is now an urban area, and if it wants more law enforcement, residents there may have to find a way to start paying for it.

APTI Reporter-Producer Ellen Lockyer started her radio career in the late 1980s, after a stint at bush Alaska weekly newspapers, the Copper Valley Views and the Cordova Times. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Valdez Public Radio station KCHU needed a reporter, and Ellen picked up the microphone.
Since then, she has literally traveled the length of the state, from Attu to Eagle and from Barrow to Juneau, covering Alaska stories on the ground for the AK show, Alaska News Nightly, the Alaska Morning News and for Anchorage public radio station, KSKA
elockyer (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8446 | About Ellen

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