A potential tragedy was avoided in Kwethluk on Saturday, May 16. According to state troopers, a 19-year-old man, Brian Nicolai, broke into the village public safety building dressed for combat. He staged rifles inside, and activated the fire alert system. When village police officers responded, the officers say that Nicolai shot at them. But no one was hurt, largely thanks to an armed resident who got Nicolai to give up his weapon and lie on the ground. The incident has VPOs wondering if they themselves should carry firearms.
Kwethluk’s Public Safety Administrative Chief, Nicolai Joseph, said that a potential mass shooting was avoided on May 16. According to state troopers, Brian Nicolai was wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet when he activated the village fire alert system. When Village Police Officer Tiger Lee was the first to respond to the fire alarm. When he arrived, he said that Nicolai pointed a rifle at him and pulled the trigger.
“I believe he wasn't aware that the rifle was empty, and I could have been shot,” Lee said.
Lee ran away as Nicolai fired in his direction, according to Lee and troopers. Lee took cover behind a conex with another VPO, Wassillie Nick, who arrived as backup. Although VPOs responded first, it was ultimately a resident who defused the situation. The difference between the officers and the resident was that the resident had a gun. That resident was Casey Thompson, according to the trooper’s report that states Thompson, armed with a rifle, was able to get the shooter to drop his gun. Thompson declined to talk with KYUK about the incident.
Lee said that he’s glad Thompson had a gun, and believes VPOs should be able to carry them.
“If we had access to firearms, we'd be able to handle more of these scenarios on our own,” Lee said.
Deputy Chief David Berezkin agrees, for certain cases.
“Sometimes that show of force helps,” Berezkin said.
Administrative Chief Joseph said that out of the 10 Village Police Officers in Kwethluk, zero carry a gun. He said that some have a baton and pepper spray, but others are armed with only handcuffs.
Officers explained that the reason Kwethluk VPOs don’t carry firearms is a lack of funding. Berezkin said that the required training to carry firearms takes two to three months in the lower 48. Joseph said that the city can’t afford to be sued for improper use of force.
But Berezkin is not rushing to change the way things are in Kwethluk. He said that incidents involving guns, like the one on Saturday, are rare.
“We don't deal with this every day, you know?” Berezkin said.
And while trooper reports show that resident Thompson was able to de-escalate the situation on Saturday with a gun, Berezkin said that people respond to a show of force in different ways, and sometimes a gun can escalate a confrontation.
“We don't know what could happen. It all depends on the person,” Berezkin said.
Lee said that even if Thompson had not arrived with a gun, he would have been able to handle the situation on Saturday. He said that he’s dealt with similar calls where people have threatened to harm themselves. As he has done in those situations, Lee said, he would have asked Nicolai questions to calm him down.
“What are they feeling? Why are they feeling that?” Lee said. “And if there's anything I can do to help. That I can do, or my fellow officers, or my fellow community members can do to help them feel better.”
Lee said that it’s his belief that he should put everyone in his community before himself and help in any way he can.
An earlier version of this story had Brian Nicolai's name mispelled as Byron Nicolai.