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Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner responds to study that found troopers are understaffed in Western Alaska

Elyssa Loughlin

An independent study published in 2020 found that troopers in Western Alaska are understaffed.

“Realistically, it's nothing that we didn't already know,” said Alaska Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell.

Cockrell made his comments to KYUK in the aftermath of a rescue operation on the lower Yukon that took eight days, and an arrest in Russian Mission that took months. But he said that there have been concrete improvements the state department of public safety has made in the last year. For example, he said, the department added four investigator positions earlier this month to the Bethel trooper post and one in each of Nome, Kotzebue, Kodiak, and Bristol Bay.

“We've never, ever had specific investigators assigned to the Y-K Delta, Nome, and Kotzebue,” Cockrell said. He added that the department is still working on filling some of those added positions.

Investigators have more specific training than regular patrol troopers to handle serious crimes like assaults, sexual assaults, and homicides. This staffing should shorten the time for state law enforcement response.

“Previously, if we had a homicide and the Bethel troopers couldn't handle it, we would have to fly investigators out of Anchorage,” Cockrell said.

The 2020 study said that lower-level crimes like alcohol and drug or property crimes were going uninvestigated in Western Alaska. And that troopers didn’t have time to engage with the community beyond flying in for arrests. Cockrell is hoping that the new investigator positions will address both these points.

“I think we'll see a huge difference,” Cockrell said.

Two of these positions were added from other regions in Alaska. The rest were created by converting regular patrol positions from within Western Alaska into the more specialized investigator positions.

Cockrell also touted a $7/hour salary increase for Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs). The commissioner said that he signed that authorization in April, which will take effect over a three year period. This was paid for by leftover funding in the VPSO budget, which Cockrell said that he wants to increase.

“One of the areas that I want to see increase is the number of VPSOs that we have in rural Alaska because essentially, they safeguard the communities out there,” Cockrell said.

Despite improvements, public safety operations still lag in Western Alaska. A rescue operation for seven hunters on the lower Yukon river took eight days. Cockrell defended troopers’ efforts, saying that they could not have rescued those people any earlier due to weather conditions.

“The first thing you learn about search and rescue: you don't become the next rescue operation,” Cockrell said. “They also, I think, have to own up the fact that they may have made a poor decision to go out there based on the river conditions.”

And then last week, troopers finally apprehended a shooting suspect in Russian Mission who evaded troopers for months. Asked why it took so long, the commissioner said that it was actually a fast arrest given how the suspects utilized the many trails and waterways around Russian Mission to escape from troopers. He said that poor weather also complicated efforts. Given all those factors, he said, “To describe this effort as anything short of success would be disingenuous.”

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