• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
5m 19s

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.

Latest Stories

  • News

    2 dead in shooting attack at Canada’s Parliament

    by CNN / AP on Oct 22, 12:08

    A Canadian soldier standing guard at a war memorial in the country’s capital was shot to death Wednesday, and heavy gunfire then erupted inside Parliament. One gunman was killed, and police said they were hunting for as many as two others. The bloodshed immediately raised the specter of a coordinated terrorist attack, with Canada already […]

  • Lifestyle

    Video game with Alaska Native storyline unveiled in Anchorage

    by Hope Miller on Oct 22, 12:03

    The first of its kind, a video game rooted in Alaska Native culture is set for release next month. Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is a one- to two-player puzzle-platform game. Set in the harsh and beautiful northern Arctic, it follows a girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox companion as they try to figure out what’s causing […]

  • News

    Anchorage police search for 11-year-old runaways

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Oct 22, 11:12

    Authorities are searching for two 11-year-old girls who ran away from an Anchorage middle school Tuesday morning, according to the Anchorage Police Department. Early Wednesday morning, APD was notified that Katelynn Shelhamer and Makayla Savage did not come home Tuesday night, according to a short written statement from police. They are believed to have run away from […]

  • Politics

    US Rep. Don Young apologizes after suicide comment

    by Associated Press on Oct 22, 10:22

    U.S. Rep. Don Young has apologized after telling students at a high school where a child recently committed suicide that people kill themselves when there’s a lack of support from family and friends. Wasilla High School Principal Amy Spargo says students and adults at the assembly took offense because it was as if they were […]

  • News

    Fairbanks schools won’t suspend recruitment

    by Associated Press on Oct 22, 8:24

    Administrators in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna school districts have suspended military recruiting at schools after allegations of sexual advances by recruiters but officials in Fairbanks say they have no plans to limit visits. Fairbanks school board President Heidi Haas tells the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/1DAFNUl) she’s not concerned about problems with recruiters at district schools. […]

  • Weather

    Daybreak weather, Oct. 22

    by Janessa Webb on Oct 22, 8:03

    Sunny skies will invade our space for the next two days. The tradeoff will be cooler conditions with daytime highs barely making it to 40 degrees. We have a system that is tracking in from the Southwest and it will make its way onshore tonight into Thursday. Areas of the Southcentral will start to see […]

  • News

    Alaska National Guard scandal not worth talking about for Sullivan

    by Kate McPherson on Oct 22, 7:46

    U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan refuses to answer questions about what he knew, or did not know, about alleged sexual assault and fraud in the Alaska National Guard. Sullivan was Alaska’s attorney general from June 17, 2009 to Dec. 5, 2010. During that time, Gov. Sean Parnell was told about the mishandling and cover-up of […]

  • News

    Open houses set for gas line project

    by Associated Press on Oct 22, 6:53

    A dozen open houses are set to be held in the coming weeks to provide information on a major proposed liquefied natural gas project. The office of federal coordinator for Alaska gas pipeline projects says officials with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will attend the meetings. The current schedule begins Oct. 28 in Nikiski and […]