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Alaska law enforcement officers face growing dangers

By Rhonda McBride 10:48 PM May 9, 2014

Rates of assault against Alaska police officers on the rise

ANCHORAGE –

In the aftermath of the shootings of two Alaska State Troopers in Tanana, the safety of law enforcement officers is on the minds of many, especially for Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Terry Vrabec.

“I think when anyone in law enforcement is slain, it hurts us all,” Vrabec said, who has a personal connection to most of the names on the memorial statue outside the State Crime Lab, dedicated to public safety workers who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Vrabec stooped down to point to trooper Hans Roelle’s plaque at the base of the statue.

“Trooper Roelle, years ago, was slain,” Vrabec said. “He and I started working on the streets together in Soldotna years ago.”

Vrabec’s eyes teared up a little as he talked about his late colleagues.

“I’m going into year 29 in law enforcement in the state, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of these people,” Vrabec said. “It’s been an honor, but it hurts.”

Vrabec knew both troopers who were killed in Tanana, trooper Gabe Rich and Sgt. Scott Johnson.

“Sgt. Johnson was a close friend of mine,” Vrabec said.

Johnson and Rich’s names have not yet been added to the statue, which is filling up quickly.

Vrabec said it’s too early to say how their deaths might have been prevented. The investigation is still ongoing, and it may not turn up any answers.

“Law enforcement officers, not just in this state, but across the country, are going to respond to calls today and could meet their demise in a really bad situation,” Vrabec said. “Would they respond any differently? Possibly not. There’s no way you can predict some of these incidents when they occur.”

Brad Mystrol, a researcher for the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, agrees. Law enforcement, by its nature, is inherently risky.

“The threat of force is always in the background,” Mystrol said. “There’s tremendous uncertainty, particularly when you look at the breadth of the sorts of incidents police officers are called on to respond to. Everyone one of them, even fairly routine warrant service incidents can escalate quickly.”

Mystrol has been researching the rate of assault against Alaska police officers for several years.

“Over time, I’ve really come to appreciate, in a very personal way,” Mystrol said. “The demanding work that officers do.”

He said the public is often critical when an officer uses deadly force without understanding the daily environment in which they operate.

Mystrol said his research into attacks against Alaska police gives some insight into that.

After crunching a decade worth of numbers, from 2002-2011, Mystrol made a discovery: assaults against Alaska law enforcement officers are rising at a rapid rate across the state.

“It’s very disconcerting to see the trend,” Mystrol said. “Not only is it an increase, but the rate of annual increase is fairly disturbing.”

Mystrol said the annual percentage change is a fairly steep slope.

Looking at assaults statewide, there was about a 66 percent increase in those with injuries. In those cases without injuries, the rate jumped to 137 percent.

About 70 percent of the assaults involve two of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, the Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers.

During the study period, Anchorage Police saw a 170 percent increase in assaults — state troopers, 150 percent.

Mystrol said APD found these numbers useful.

“Very often our data confirms what practitioners sense in their gut and sort of feel in general,” Mystrol said.

But the data alone doesn’t answer the reasons why the numbers are rising. Mystrol said he hopes it leads to a bigger conversation about how to address the growing dangers. The numbers also point to things that need more examination, such as the differences in the assaults on Anchorage police officers and state troopers.

“What the data shows, when you look at the primary weapon used in assaults against police officers, is, that it depends on the agency,” Mystrol said.

“For the Alaska State Troopers, they face a higher risk of being assaulted with a firearm than the Anchorage Police Department or other agencies.”

About 44 percent of the trooper assaults involved firearms, compared to only four percent for Anchorage officers.Mystrol said there’s no research yet to explain this.

The subsistence lifestyle prevalent in the communities served by Alaska State Troopers is one possibility, because just about every household in a small village has guns needed for hunting and fishing.

Mystrol said firearm ownership in Alaska is a constant, with rates extraordinarily high compared to other states and other countries. But without more research, it’s hard to say whether it’s a factor in trooper assaults.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a law allowing Village Public Safety Officers to carry weapons after much testimony about the growing dangers VPSOs face in their jobs.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham was one of the lead sponsors, after a VPSO in his region, Thomas Madole, was shot and killed in the line of duty.

Mystrol called the Legislature’s decision a major policy shift for the program, one that could potentially make work for VPSOs more dangerous — another question for future research.

The UAA Justice Center’s goal is to assist the Legislature and other leaders in the decision-making process.

Mystrol hopes his study raises awareness for officers.

“They just want to go out and do a good job, do public service, but get home safely each and every day,” Mystrol said.

He said it’s important they understand the trends that affect their safety.

Although Mystrol’s study raises some red flags, Vrabec says it doesn’t change the mission of law enforcement.

“I’ve being doing this close to three decades, and I have not lost my good feeling for the citizens of Alaska, of how they’ve respected us as a whole.”

Vrabec said he’s been overwhelmed by the public’s outpouring of support in the wake of the Tanana tragedy.

“We do have officers slain. That doesn’t mean we’re going to give up,” Vrabec said. “We want all the men and women in law enforcement to be strong, to keep doing their jobs.”

For Vrabec and others, the best way to honor the memories of trooper Gabe Rich and Sgt. Scott Johnson is to carry on.

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