Shooting incident raises concern for public safety

Wrong side of the law

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

Death and violence aren't just stories for the six o'clock news or a star-studded Hollywood plot.

Ask Nikiski's 5,000 residents.

In the wake of a March 12 shooting that claimed the life on one Nikiski young man, wounded three others and left another facing charges of first- and second-degree murder, the people of this Kenai Peninsula community are asking hard questions.

And looking for answers.

The only law enforcement in Nikiski is provided by Alaska State Troopers E Detachment, based in Soldotna. According to First Sergeant Nils Monsen, the area stretches from Mile 65 of the Sterling Highway south as far as Mile 120. Included within that area are 17-mile Funny River Road and 22-mile Kalifornsky Beach Road, excluding those areas falling within either Soldotna or Kenai police jurisdiction.

Monsen said Detachment E also has responsibility for oversight of Tyonek, on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Add to that the 36-mile stretch of highway connecting Nikiski to the rest of the peninsula and the result is 11 uniformed troopers spread out to provide 24-hour patrol.

Using the March 12 incident as a measuring stick, Monsen reported troopers were on the scene within 20 minutes.

However, Nikiski residents reported response times ranging from 20 minutes to three hours -- if troopers can respond at all.

"No one here feels like you can call the troopers and they're going to be here in time to stop any incident brewing," said Jack Brown, Nikiski representative on the Kenai Borough assembly. "We're pretty much going to have to stop things on our own."

Brown based his comments on personal experience.

"A few years ago a guy broke into my house. I had a loaded gun about five feet away from me, so I never felt threatened," he said. "Later, I identified him for the cops and he was arrested. I had to go look for him myself. It's kind of scary. It does make you feel like you're on your own."

From his position on the assembly, Brown has scheduled a meeting for Thursday to address several subjects of interest to Nikiski residents. Public safety is definitely on the agenda.

Diana White has lived in Nikiski for 29 years. The March 12 incident has heightened her concern about safety.

"I've never been this scared in my life," she said. "I'm here by myself. But I do know how to use my gun and I will (use it)."

Joe Ross, who claims Nikiski as his hometown for the past 20 years, has personal experiences encompassing a broad range of law enforcement response time.

"Last winter my wife called troopers when somebody was beating on the door in the middle of the night," said Ross, who ran for borough mayor in 1999 and is considering running for election at the state level. "They were here within 20 minutes."

On a separate occasion, the response to his call for help went unanswered.

"I called about a domestic violence at a neighbor's residence," said Ross. "The woman was beat up so bad she had to hold her eyes open with her fingers when she crawled (to our house)."

After calling for medical help, Ross said he summoned the troopers. But they never came. The next morning Ross was told the troopers were involved in another incident, leaving no one available.

Nikiski Fire Chief Billy Harris, who is helping organize the Thursday meeting, said he doesn't think increased law enforcement presence is the answer.

"It wouldn't improve nothing," said Harris. "If you're thinking (about the March 12 shooting), you're not going to prevent that. That could happen while you're walking down the road."

Increased law enforcement in Nikiski is not a new subject. In 1997 Brown drafted an ordinance to establish a Nikiski sheriff service area.

The ordinance was never introduced, but Brown was later successful in passing a resolution asking for increased trooper presence in Nikiski.

"They came out and wrote more tickets," he said. "That wasn't what we were looking for."

Hal Smalley, who represents Nikiski in the Alaska Legislature, said he's aware his constituents see two sides to the issue.

"We've looked into (having a trooper stationed at Nikiski)," said Smalley. "And we're getting a mixed review. Some would support it. For some the desire is not there."

He sees it related to a bigger issue -- budget cuts.

"In light of the fact that (Nikiski) had difficulty with road maintenance under changes that were made, it's been difficult for the state troopers to respond in a timely manner," Smalley said.

"I would definitely support such efforts to look at getting a trooper station out there. People in Nikiski, like people all over the state, deserve adequate protection."

Jim and Peggy Arness homesteaded in the North Kenai area in 1951.

They say they are comfortable with the way things are.

"I see troopers on the highway so I know they're out here at times," said Jim Arness, who has never had occasion to call for trooper assistance. "It's a comforting thought to know they're watching and patrolling. I'm comfortable with that. I don't think we live in an area that needs to be policed, as such."

Stan and Donnis Thompson, who homesteaded in the Nikiski area in 1958, agreed.

"I don't know that a better police is the answer," said Stan Thompson who was borough mayor for 10 years during the 1970s and 80s. "I think a better citizenry is the answer."

Ross, who also will attend Thursday's public safety meeting, echoed Thompson's conclusions.

"I think a lot of the people (in Nikiski) are here because we don't have police," Ross said. "They're here driving around with cars without windshields and no driver's licenses because they know they can get away with it.

"We have our share of family homes and our normal families, but we have more than our share of cronies."

Greg Wilkinson, information officer for the Alaska State Troopers, said trooper assignment is based on four criteria: population; case load and the level of crime; geographic locations; and the level of local law enforcement.

"Our size statewide has been reduced over the past seven years," said Wilkinson. "Some of that has to do with the rise in municipal enforcement. Some of that is a reduction of funds."

Besides public safety, the agenda for Thursday's meeting also includes the property tax cap initiative and the future of Nikiski. Looking toward the future, the options being considered are maintaining the status quo, incorporating, or establishing a community development council. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Nikiski Senior Center.

"If we can do anything to prevent something like (the March 12 shooting), then I stand ready," said Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, who also represents Nikiski and parts of Kenai.

"I know the police stand ready. And the whole community stands ready."

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