More calls, but fewer troopers

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2002

Summer means longer days during which Alaskans make the most of their short reprieve from the cold.

However, it also means longer working days for Alaska State Troopers for whom an increase in summer activity further reveals the problems that result from understaffing throughout the state.

"Especially on the Kenai Peninsula, which is a magnet for recreational activity, population increases exponentially while the number of troopers doesn't change," said Greg Wilkinson, information officer for the troopers.

"Would we like to see more troopers? Of course. We prioritize our calls and try to get there as fast as we can."

However, sometimes that isn't fast enough.

That was the case when Jerry Dixon, a longtime Seward resident, was trying to spend the weekend of May 25 camping with his family and friends near the Tern Lake rest area along the Old Seward Highway. Their Saturday evening was disturbed when a rental motor home allegedly pulled into the area and its occupants set up target practice on a picnic table.

According to Dixon, at least three men fired off 100 rounds into beer cans before calling it a night and retiring back into the camper. The men were asleep and the guns were nowhere in sight by the time troopers, whom Dixon and others camped nearby had called more than an hour earlier, were finally able to respond.

Dixon does not blame the troopers for the delayed response, which he later discovered was because the trooper pulled over an intoxicated driver on his way to the scene.

"Troopers are great. Limited enforcement just can't possibly cover the entire area. It just starts to show when things start to break down," he said. "You aren't going to get a timely response when they are spread so thin."

Alaska's population increased from 400,000 to 622,000 between 1980 and 1999. During almost the same time from 1983 to 1999 the number of troopers decreased from 323 to 237.

"We are so thinly spread out that we could add those 86 back and still be undermanned," Wilkinson said.

However, there is a system in place that picks up some slack around the 500,000 square miles troopers are expected to patrol. Through special commissions awarded to federal officers by state agencies and vice versa, dispatchers and officers can use their own discretion and respond to calls outside of traditional agency lines.

So, while the trooper dispatched to Tern Lake may have been delayed, Paul Kain, a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said he also could have been notified and sent to the incident.

"We are just trying to work cooperatively to cover things as much as we can," said Kain.

The system allows officers from various agencies, both state and federal, to respond to problems that pose immediate safety risks regardless of whether the incident is within their jurisdiction, said Sgt. Brandon Anderson from the Seward trooper station.

"It is wonderful to have them out there, to know that someone else is there," he said.

In the case of the Tern Lake incident, Anderson said, when the trooper was delayed, the dispatcher could have decided to call Kain.

"At that point they could have called. They have discretion to call whoever," he said.

However, he said, because there is no strict protocol dictating actions dispatchers should take, not everyone understands that they can call officers from other agencies to help.

"It is a continual education process, I am certainly not faulting the dispatchers." Anderson said.

Kain, who has talked with Anderson regarding the incident, said he plans also to meet with the head dispatcher in Seward.

"It is just a matter of clearing up a misunderstanding with dispatch," Kain said. "I am not dispatched by Seward on a regular basis but they are not as familiar with procedures."

While he may not be sent on calls by Seward, Kain said, he is frequently dispatched by the Soldotna troopers station for calls that involve federal land or because of his vicinity to the Seward and Moose Pass areas.

However, even though Dixon and others camping in the vicinity of the Tern Lake area called the Seward troopers five times, because the dispatcher didn't know to call Kain the interagency solution of cooperation didn't help Dixon and the other families, one of which left as result of the nearby target practice.

"I didn't have a weapon and they were shooting beer cans. I am assuming they were armed and drinking beer," said Dixon. "It is not my job as citizen to approach them and inform them of the law."

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