Another ripple effect from state budget cuts hits Haines this month: the Chilkat Valley is losing its only non-wildlife state trooper. The head of Alaska State Troopers says the position will go unfilled until his department knows whether its budget will be reduced again. If it is, the Haines trooper post might close for good.
The Haines ‘blue-shirt’ trooper is the main law enforcement officer for areas outside of the townsite. The trooper serves communities up the Haines Highway, including Klukwan, and residents who live out Mud Bay and Lutak roads.
Starting Dec. 15, those areas will see a different level of service. Trooper Andrew Neason is leaving, and to save money, the department is holding off on filling the job.
“We’re to the point that we can’t give anymore, around the state,” said Colonel James Cockrell, who leads the Department of Public Safety’s Trooper Division.
“And until we either get more funding or more trooper positions, we’re going to have to look at areas where we don’t provide a trooper in. And Haines would be the next one, unfortunately.”
Cockrell says since the state budget crisis started, his department has eliminated 32 trooper positions and taken a $7 million reduction to its enforcement budget.
“We kind of expect to take more cuts this session, so we’re evaluating all our posts. We’ve currently closed Girdwood posts, Ninilchik, McGrath and Talkeetna. And Haines would be our next post we would close if we continue to take the cuts we’ve been taking.”
That’s why Cockrell decided to wait and see what happens this legislative session before deciding on the fate of the Haines’ trooper position. He says although other posts have been cut already, Haines is the only one currently in this kind of limbo.
Cockrell says it’s partly because of the caseload the Haines trooper deals with in comparison to other areas. And Haines does have other law enforcement options.
“There is a police department there, plus we have an Alaska Wildlife Trooper there that’s a fully commissioned Alaska Wildlife Trooper that can handle the criminal complaints that we have out of that area,” Cockrell said.
“The activity levels warrant the post being filled,” argued Haines Police Chief Heath Scott.
He points to statistics that show a spike in the number of Haines court cases, indicating an increase in the number of crimes. The stats were included in a letter Mayor Jan Hill sent to Cockrell Friday.
“We want to compel them to consider this a necessary and important post,” Scott said.
The police chief says in general, the four Haines police officers respond to townsite crimes and troopers respond to crimes in the more far-flung parts of the borough. But the two agencies work together on more serious calls.
“I’ll tell you this, [the trooper has] backed me up on calls,” Scott said. “He’s back up every one of the officers in this department on priority calls, as we have backed him up. And even losing just one individual in this region is going to make our community less safe.”
Without a regular enforcement trooper here, Colonel Cockrell says emergency calls will go to Haines’ one ‘brown-shirt’, or wildlife trooper. Wildlife troopers, have the same authority to respond to non-wildlife related crimes. But Wildlife and State Troopers are two separate divisions. Cockrell says less pressing crimes, like thefts, would be handled by Juneau state troopers.
“It’s not anything different that we don’t deal with in rural Alaska where we don’t have troopers in every community,” Cockrell said. “We get them there when we can. We try to do our best to get there. We just don’t have the number of troopers that we need to cover this state. That’s just plainly spoken, we just don’t.”
Trooper Neason’s last day is Dec. 15. Cockrell says he will likely wait until April, when the legislative session is over, to make a decision about filling the post.
He says if everything goes ‘perfectly’ and he can afford to bring a trooper back to Haines, the earliest that person would start is probably August of 2017. That means, best case scenario, Haines is left without a trooper for seven months. Worst case scenario, the days of the Chilkat Valley having a local ‘blue shirt’ trooper are over.
Police Chief Scott plans to hold town hall meetings in Haines and at Mosquito Lake to discuss the loss of trooper service. The tentative date is Dec. 20.