Mat-Su troopers face staffing crisis amid calls for help
A newly unveiled study of Alaska State Troopers in the Mat-Su has found that they have been “chronically over-utilized” in recent years, as Mat-Su Borough officials seek a sharp rise in staffing amid safety concerns in a Wasilla-area neighborhood.
The study, conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center and completed in February, also calls for more troopers to alleviate a workload which often sees more troopers called for than are currently on shift. The state Department of Public Safety, which requested the report, released its results Friday.
According to the study, in August troopers’ B Detachment covering the Mat-Su and part of the Richardson Highway included a total of 45 staff members – 35 troopers plus 10 supervising trooper officers. Based on its workload of about 48,000 cases per year, however, the detachment should have a staff of 71, requiring the hiring of 26 more sworn troopers including three additional sergeants.
“Implementing this increase in sworn staff requires a multiyear, sustained effort to both retain existing troopers and recruit new troopers,” researchers wrote.
According to the study, the U.S. averages 1.6 police officers per 1,000 residents nationwide. In Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, the regional average is 1.1 officers – but in the Mat-Su, that number falls to half an officer.
About half a dozen troopers are typically on hand during a shift at the Mat-Su West and Palmer posts, but peak call hours can see as many as eight troopers simultaneously required.
Although troopers haven’t responded to more incidents during the period examined by the study, from 2009 through 2015, trooper hours spent on incidents have risen by 14.7 percent. Time spent on property crime like burglaries and vehicle theft rose sharply in 2015, with lesser rises in time on assisting with public incidents, follow-up investigations and serving court warrants.
The result has been less trooper time spent on discretionary activity like traffic stops, a sign of trooper-initiated patrols rather than reactions to specific calls for which troopers are obligated to respond.
“Even after excluding most trooper-initiated activity (traffic stops), it is common for more than 80 percent of trooper hours to be obligated,” researchers wrote. “Stated slightly differently, it is common for every trooper in the field to be handling an incident.”
The strain means complications in troopers’ ability to take time off, which has health and morale effects. In addition, the study suggests, “it will likely be necessary” to disband the detachment’s Crime Suppression Unit now focused on property crimes and reassign its troopers to patrol duties.
DPS spokesman Jonathon Taylor said Friday that the shortages in the study mean troopers can be forced to act alone on potentially dangerous calls, despite being on the southcentral Alaska road system – which, in the Mat-Su, spans 2,250 miles of roads across an area the size of West Virginia.
“There’s some cases where a trooper from B Detachment isn’t going to be able to call for backup,” Taylor said. “I think it’s sort of a testament to the dedication, to the commitment and the caliber of these individuals in making sure they’re capable of responding to these public calls for service – they’re really jacks of all trades.”
The department didn’t immediately have similar personnel numbers on hand for troopers’ other four detachments covering Southeast, Western and Interior Alaska as well as the Kenai Peninsula. Taylor said troopers have worked to improve the department’s retention rates, however, with eight prospective new troopers undergoing training at this spring’s Alaska Public Safety Academy in Sitka.
“I think the recruitment unit at AST has redoubled their efforts to encourage people to become a trooper and stay a trooper,” Taylor said. “While this study is specific to B Detachment, I think this underscores trooper shortages across the state.”
Staffing concerns among troopers have been an issue for at least the past year, after troopers suffered $10 million in budget cuts during 2015 and 2016. Last year, then-AST director Jim Cockrell said the force had “become a training ground for other police departments,” because troopers’ wages were no longer competitive.
Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget this year includes an additional $34 million in spending on public safety, intended to hire trooper investigators in Bethel and Kotzebue, bolster prosecutorial staff and expand substance-abuse treatment programs. The appropriations are part of Walker’s “Safer Alaska” initiative, covering a variety of public-safety and infrastructure programs.
In a Thursday letter to Walker, borough Mayor Vern Halter reviewed Assembly testimony earlier this week from residents of Wasilla’s Williwaw Subdivision. He said the area, outside Wasilla city limits and under troopers’ jurisdiction, is “notorious for crime, which includes littered drug paraphernalia, drug use, drug trafficking, theft, assault and murder.”
Halter said parents told the Assembly they were afraid to walk their children to bus stops, with one woman saying her home had been broken into four times. An Assembly member who visited the area last week, Halter said, saw “what appeared to be criminal activity boldly happening 15 feet away from him.”
“Criminals seem to be running the area, (and) are conducting criminal activities virtually with impunity with a complete disregard for the rules of civilized behavior,” Halter wrote. “The decent citizens of the neighborhood are rightfully scared and are asking for police help to curb the crime and stop the lawlessness in their area. Can you please help us?”
In a second letter, Halter told state lawmakers in the Mat-Su that the borough’s trooper presence has fallen to its current level from 50 troopers in 2005 – a period during which the borough’s population has exploded from 74,000 to 104,000 people. He called for the state to add at least 15 troopers in the borough during its next budget cycle, as well as an additional 10 in each of the following two years.
“After a three-year period, the Mat-Su Borough would be up to 65 troopers,” Halter wrote. “This is short of what it should be but it will reverse the trend of failure to provide state resources to ensure public safety. Making political excuses or pointing fingers needs to cease and I implore you to fund these much-needed trooper positions.”
Governor Walker responded Monday afternoon, saying:
Alaska State Troopers play a critical role in building a safer Alaska. That is why my proposed budget calls for increased funding for troopers, and it is why I have tasked the Department of Public Safety, Department of Administration, and Department of Law to make trooper recruitment and retention a top priority.
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