Valley residents frustrated with crime amid trooper staffing shortages
On a relatively slow day for Trooper Patrick Simasko, he and another trooper are able to go to calls together.
First, they checked out a report of a panic alarm; then, a call about a potentially stolen vehicle.
“It can be taxing,” Simasko said. “A lot of time it's call to call to call to call to call.”
A University of Alaska Anchorage study found the Alaska State Troopers B-Detachment in the Mat-Su Borough is 57-percent understaffed.
There are currently 36 patrol troopers split into four shifts. Lieutenant Andrew Gorn said, considering vacation time and medical leave, there are about five to six troopers on shift at any given time.
Lt. Gorn said he has to deny vacation requests and personal leave because there aren’t enough troopers to cover regular shifts. He said troopers are overworked and that can lead to staff getting burned out and eventually leaving for another agency.
Because there aren’t enough troopers for everyone to have backup on every call, many times troopers are going into potentially dangerous situations alone.
“The Mat-Su Valley is known as the meat grinder a far as troopers go. Because the workload is extensive.”
Troopers have seen cuts to their posts while the population in the Valley has increased. Mat-Su Borough Mayor Vern Halter said in 2005 there were about 74,000 people in the borough and 50 patrol troopers; now there are about 104,000 and 36 troopers.
The scope of their patrol is massive, too; the Mat-Su Borough is the size of West Virginia with more than 2,000 miles of road.
Simasko said troopers used to have a post in Talkeetna but that was axed because of state budget shortfalls.
“We have one trooper up there and if he gets in a fight or a hot call and he needs backup, if we run code, we can be there in half an hour and a lot can happen in half an hour. A lot can happen in 10 seconds in this job,” Simasko said.
Gorn said the lack of staffing means they have to prioritize calls.
“People crimes, making sure our roadways are open and safe, those are the things that are going to be handled first. Property crimes are going to play second fiddle to that,” Gorn said.
That can be frustrating for people who deal with property crime on a regular basis.
“There are 460 homes, and I bet you there's a drug house on every single street,” said Michael Fernandez.
He’s lived in the Williwaw subdivision in Wasilla for 12 years. Over that time he’s seen crime and drug problems increase in the neighborhood.
“This is one of the trailers we're having a hard time with. Druggies, they smoke up, shoot up, ransack the place,” Fernandez said.
He took KTVA on a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out houses that are notorious for nefarious activity.
One house is now abandoned and is in the process of being sold. Its front porch is filled with sacks of trash about four-feet deep all the way around. Partially deconstructed junk cars litter the back of the lot.
Another house a few doors down from Fernandez is one he says is a “revolving door” for people looking for drugs and living in cars.
Even if troopers do respond, Fernandez said there’s not much they can do.
“Troopers show up and it's a little slap on the wrist and off on their merry way. That's kind of the way things go now. If you're not murdering someone, beating someone or raping someone you get a slap on the wrist and walk away,” he said.
Fernandez was one of several Williwaw neighbors who testified about the problems at a borough assembly meeting in March.
“I don’t feel safe and I feel like I have to carry a gun at all times,” one woman told the assemblymembers.
Halter said there’s a feeling of helplessness from that community.
“It was gut-wrenching listening to them. It was one of the most emotional meetings I’ve ever been at. When I walked away from that I wrote the letter to the governor the next day,” Halter said.
His letter to Governor Bill Walker pleaded for more police support and asked the legislative delegation to give the Mat-Su at least 65 troopers in the next three years. Ideally, Halter said he’d like to see 85.
“I think the work they're doing is excellent, top notch. We just need more of them. That's my message to our legislative delegation is public safety should be the top thing we're working on and let's get these filled,” Halter said.
Trooper Simasko said he’d like to patrol more proactively and not just respond to calls after crimes have been committed.
He said the Williwaw neighborhood is the perfect example of an area that benefits from increased enforcement.
“I drove through there last week and some guy flagged me down, I thought he needed help, he just wanted to thank me for driving through the area because it's so bad,” Simasko said.
For now, troopers say they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have but hope more staff will alleviate the call burden and give them some much needed days off.
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