There’s a shortage of troopers in Western Alaska and it comes with serious consequences, study says

A car parked near trees.
An Alaska State Troopers vehicle in Bethel. (Elyssa Loughlin/KYUK)

Alaska State Troopers in Western Alaska are understaffed.

study published in 2020 found trooper posts around Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Dillingham and Kodiak were, together, understaffed by about 22%. The study was commissioned by the Alaska Department of Public Safety. The state refers to the troopers in those five regions as the “C Detachment.”

“The C Detachment of the troopers really is working at capacity all the time,” said Troy Payne, one of the study’s authors. Payne is the director of the Alaska Justice Information Center, and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Payne said that troopers in Western Alaska get more calls than they can respond to with the number of officers they have. Trooper sergeants in the area told Payne that the understaffing comes with serious consequences.

“At least one of the sergeants told us that some types of crime were just not being investigated due to lack of staffing. So, for example, alcohol- and drug-related crimes, and some property crimes. They also talked about delayed response times, or sometimes no response at all to requests for service,” Payne said.

Sergeants said that sometimes trooper investigations take so long that witnesses stop cooperating, leading to District Attorney’s office dropping some of the cases. Eventually, Payne said, communities often just give up on trying to get law enforcement to respond.

“If you’re in a community and something occurs, and you think the police need to be there, and you call and the police say, ‘Yeah, we’re not coming,’ eventually you stop calling,” Payne said.

Additionally, Payne said that understaffing prevents troopers from being able to attend training.

“You can’t have troopers doing service training if there’s nobody to backfill for them when they’re in training,” he said.

One sergeant said that there is a lack of troopers trained to handle sexual assault cases. Troopers that aren’t trained to conduct interviews for these types of cases can risk harming the victims, according to the study.

When there is only time to put out the fires, Payne said, troopers can’t build relationships with the communities they serve.

“One of the sergeants described the current state of Community Relations and Outreach as, and this is a direct quote, ‘The only time villagers ever see a trooper is when we fly in to arrest someone.’ And that’s not a set of conditions that leads to folks being satisfied with the policing services that they receive in general,” Payne said.

While Payne and his co-authors laid out the problems associated with trooper understaffing in Western Alaska, the study does not examine solutions beyond increasing the number of troopers. Payne said that research prior to this study has shown that involving village police officers, tribal police officers and village public safety officers leads to more prosecutions over time.

Payne also said that what communities want from their law enforcement is of critical importance. But this study had to be curtailed before that could be probed, and wasn’t a factor in the recommendation to increase trooper staffing.

“We intended to talk to communities,” he said. “Unfortunately, this study was in the field at the same time as COVID-19.”

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