Questions for troopers

Alaskans have faith in the force, but not blind faith

July 28, 2008 

Since the Palin family's bitter dispute with Alaska state trooper Mike Wooten became widely known, more than one Alaskan has asked:

What does it take to fire a trooper?

Mike Wooten got a 10-day suspension, later cut to five days, for drinking off-duty in a patrol car, using his state-issued Taser on his stepson, illegally shooting a moose on his wife's permit and threatening his father-in-law.

Should he have gotten more? Should he have been fired?

Where does the state draw the line?

The answer is, we don't really know.

Six troopers have been fired or resigned under investigation during the last two years, according to John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association. Information about those cases is confidential, according to Alaska statute, and the Department of Public Safety has declined to release any information.

The employees association also generally refuses to release information about complaints; Wooten himself authorized the public release of his file, even though it painted a pretty damning picture of himself.

If what trooper Wooten did doesn't justify firing, what does?

Alaskans need to know the answers, because the Alaska State Troopers are law enforcers, people we trust with tremendous authority and responsibility. They include some of our best people, men and women of care, courage and character.

Like the rest of us, they don't wear halos. But they do carry guns and a reputation for integrity that is absolutely essential for the public trust.

That's why it's important to know where the lines are. That's why we'd like to see the veil of confidentiality lifted at least enough to see just what actions have gotten troopers fired. The state should be able to disclose what the firing offenses were, without publicizing the troopers' names or identifying details.

Trooper union director Cyr said last week that in general, firing offenses include serious offenses against integrity, such as lying in an investigation or falsifying an arrest report.

In addition, immediate dismissal is possible in cases of gross disobedience, drug or alcohol abuse on the job, physical abuse of either a co-worker or member of the public, and abusive or lewd behavior in general.

In theory, those standards are fine. But how are these rules applied in practice? How does the department balance violations with a trooper's record in the field? Troopers are understaffed; what effect does that have on disciplinary decisions? How do the state and union handle a pattern of lesser but chronic offenses?

No doubt there are gray areas, judgment calls. That's what the department apparently made in the case of Mike Wooten, deciding that he was a worthy trooper who had made mistakes, paid for them and was allowed to carry on -- with a warning that another infraction would be his last with the troopers.

Maybe that was the right call. Apparently both the department and union followed their rules in getting to that call.

But satisfying their own rules does not necessarily maintain the public trust, especially when confidentiality prevents Alaskans from knowing much about how these decisions are made. State troopers serve Alaskans every day, no question. But it does not serve Alaskans to keep them in the dark when so many are wondering where the firing line is.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaskans need to know more about trooper standards and discipline -- and what it takes to get the boot.


30 million?

The vintage Daily News statehood page on July 20 carried a small piece on a stunning prediction made at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

W.P. Fuller Brawner -- that's Fuller as in the paints -- said in 1958 that statehood "will act as a chemical catalyst" to accelerate Alaska development.

He might have been right about that, but in his vision of a population of 30 million within 50 years, he must have been looking at a horizon you'd need Hubble to see.

Let's see ... if Alaska had 30 million people today, we'd bounce Texas out of the No. 2 place in population and trail only California. We'd have maybe 40 electoral votes. Bet John McCain would have an office here.

On the other hand, our 2007 Permanent Fund dividend checks would have been about 33 bucks.

And just think of the combat fishing.

-- Frank Gerjevic

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