Alaska Public Safety commissioner talks drug policing, prevention in Bristol Bay

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Alaska’s Department of Public Safety commissioner James Cockrell (left) and the department’s interim head of the Village Public Safety Officer program Joel Ward (right) at a Nov. 8, 2023 town hall in Dillingham. (Christina McDermott/KDLG)

Between the years 2021 and 2022, Alaska’s overdose deaths nearly doubled from the previous five-year average.

James Cockrell, the commissioner for the state’s Department of Public Safety, said the department knows that Alaska has a drug problem.

“Specifically in rural Alaska,” he said. “Dillingham, Togiak area, and King Salmon [are some] of the areas that have a high percentage of drugs and drug overdoses.”

Last summer, the region saw three overdoses – one fatal – in the span of a week. All of the overdoses involved fentanyl.

Cockrell said rural Alaska is a target for dealers because they reap huge profits in small communities. A dose of fentanyl can cost many times what it would in the Lower 48.

According to the Department of Public Safety’s annual 2022 drug report, a dose of fentanyl that cost $15 in Anchorage could cost $100 in Kodiak or Bethel. A pill containing Fentanyl in Seattle can cost less than a dollar if bought in bulk, according to the Seattle Times.

Recent court documents from the multi-state drug ring involving Heraclio Sanchez-Rodgriguez, Tamara Bren and Kevin Peterson II say that law enforcement seized more than two kilograms of fentanyl that was shipped to Dillingham from January through March of 2023.

In November, Cockrell and interim director for the Village Public Safety Officer program Joel Ward met with community officials in Dillingham to discuss the scope of the problem. The city also held a town hall so the wider community could express their concerns.

Dillingham mayor Alice Ruby said that at both meetings, community members raised concerns about the region’s drug use.

“It was pretty evident by some of the agencies talking about issues they’ve been dealing with — [the] housing authority, and even our local police force and others — that it’s a growing problem, and we all are seeing the effects,” she said.

Alaska Natives, who make up a large percentage of the rural population in Southwest Alaska, have been especially affected by drug overdoses.The 2022 national overdose death rate for Alaska Natives and American Indians was about 78 per 100,000, compared to about 29 per 100,000 for white people.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are now the most common drug involved in overdose deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About two milligrams can kill you.

The Department of Public Safety recently launched an app to combat the problem called AKTips, where community members can send anonymous information to officers working on drug cases from all over the state. Officers can then alert local authorities.

“The more information that we can get, the quicker the information, the more detailed information we get, the more likelihood law enforcement, whether it’s the Dillingham Police Department, [the] King Salmon Police Department, Togiak, or the Alaska State Troopers, we have a much higher probability of solving that case,” Cockrell said.

The department’s interim head of the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program Joel Ward said another focus is prevention in small communities.

“The VPSO program is the state’s effort to have a proactive local presence,” Ward said. “With that presence, they establish relationships and rapport and can recognize crime or accidents before they become accidents or crimes.”

Ward said village public safety officers not only have a strong understanding of local dynamics, but can also provide a positive role model and help reduce the demand for drugs in small communities.

“[We’re] looking at the families, the children, and others that get sucked into the supply side and [we] try to create a different role model that can help people make better choices,” he said.

But there are still hurdles. Although the state has increased public safety funding in recent years, the agency is still understaffed. Last month, Cockrell said, 70 positions were open in the Troopers alone. He said this understaffing limits their capacity to staff a drug officer in rural areas like Dillingham.

Cockrell said the department has, in the past, underserved much of rural Alaska, something he’s trying to change.

“A person should feel comfortable in the community that they’re in, whether they’re in a village or they’re in a city setting,” he said. “A community cannot prosper if they don’t feel safe.”

The department had staffed a drug investigator in Dillingham in the past, but that position is currently vacant. Going forward, Cockrell said filling the position is a priority.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

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