Troopers at ‘critical’ staffing level as state budget talks continue, says director
As lawmakers in Juneau are deciding where to make cuts in this year’s budget, the director of the Alaska State Troopers (AST) says he’s holding his breath.
“These reductions have pushed us right to an edge of a cliff, and it wouldn’t take much to push us over. We’re that critical right now when it comes to the amount of resources we have,” said AST Col. Jim Cockrell.
He says AST is down 32 positions after seeing more than $10 million in cuts over the last two years. The budget cuts have forced them to close several trooper posts during that time, including the one in Girdwood, and most recently, Haines.
Cockrell says they no longer offer competitive wages to keep up with other law enforcement agencies in the state, and with no retirement plan they’re losing troopers to other departments by the dozen.
“In the last year I think we’ve lost 22 troopers, not to retirement or injury-related, and probably about 75 percent of those have went to police departments here in Alaska or in the Lower 48. So basically we’ve become a training ground for other police departments,” said Cockrell.
In addition to hurting retention he claims the budget woes are affecting their recruitment efforts, saying academies once attracted 1,200 to 1,800 applicants, but the last time around they only received about 230 applications.
“Overall, we’re still providing professional law enforcement services,” explained Cockrell.
But, he said, it sometimes comes at the cost of protecting their own.
“We’ve got less back up. We’re sending troopers to domestic violence, one trooper. No other law enforcement agency in the country would send one police officer to a domestic violence in progress and we do it routinely.”
Cockrell compared their resources in the Mat-Su to having only six troopers for the entire state of West Virginia. He said they’re “inundated” with sexual assaults and violent crimes in Bethel, and that the crime rates in some villages are five and six times worse than in Anchorage.
“If Anchorage had the crime rate that some of our villages out in the Y-K Delta [has], people would be screaming at their legislators,” said Cockrell.
He says the department’s fate rests in the hands of 60 people in Juneau. One of those lawmakers told KTVA cuts to troopers have gone too deep.
“When you’re driving between Kenai and Anchorage and you roll your car over and troopers can’t come for two and a half hours, we’ve gotten to the point where in some cases, we’ve cut too low,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche said.
This year, Gov. Bill Walker did propose cuts to state troopers, but senate budget writers say he went too far. They added back more than $1 million to pay for six more trooper positions.
They still have to work with the house to find a budget compromise.
“This uniform, when we go out to our villages or go to a residence because they called us, it’s a symbol of hope. There’s some blind faith here that we’re gonna do the right thing,” said Cockrell.
He says, despite the challenges they face, morale is good and the department is strong internally.
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