First of two parts. Read the second installment here.
Forty-three people have been killed by law enforcement officers in Alaska over the past five and a half years.
All kinds of people were killed: A tattoo artist chasing his dream in Juneau. An Anchorage auto detailer with a tight-knit extended family. An adopted daughter from the Bering Sea island of Little Diomede. A Vietnam veteran living out increasing paranoia at a home on the Anchorage Hillside. A beloved brother living a mysterious life far from home. The son of a Russian Orthodox priest. A North Slope volunteer fire department chief. An oil field worker active in his Pentecostal church. An Air Force sergeant.
After the death of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck sparked national sustained protests and calls for sweeping policing reforms, the Daily News set out to learn everything possible about fatal encounters between citizens and police in Alaska.
We found that no statewide data existed. So we used reviews of each fatal incident by state prosecutors, plus news accounts and existing national databases to compile the most comprehensive list possible of Alaska police use-of-force deaths from Jan. 1, 2015, until now. Though we took steps to check our work, it is possible that we missed an event. If we did, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.
In each case, lawyers in the state’s Office of Special Prosecutions review investigations compiled by police departments to determine whether criminal charges for the officer or officers involved in a death are warranted. To further our understanding of why police shootings happen, we read all 37 of those reviews, totaling more than 100 pages. (Reviews in six cases have not yet been released.)
The reviews rely on an accounting of events produced by the police agencies themselves. Some families of people killed say they do not trust them. Still, the reviews go beyond the brief summaries that typically explain the shootings when first publicly reported, coming closer to telling the messy, tragic stories of the deaths of dozens of Alaskans killed in encounters with law enforcement.
What we learned:
• At least 30 percent of the people killed by police were Alaska Native. Alaska Native people make up about 15 percent of Alaska’s population.
• At least eight Alaska law enforcement officers fired shots in multiple fatal incidents. Since 2015, one Alaska state trooper and one Fairbanks Police Department officer each killed three people in separate incidents.
• In at least three cases, the person killed was not armed. In the majority of cases, officers killed a person who was brandishing or firing a gun. In a significant minority of the incidents, people holding items such as switchblades, kitchen knives or, in one case, a makeshift dog leash were killed.
• At least two deadly incidents started with someone calling for psychiatric help for a person in distress. Many other incidents referred to a psychotic episode, suicidal person, paranoia or someone otherwise in crisis.
• Nearly one in four of the killings happened in the Fairbanks area. The city has a population of 31,000 people. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has a population of roughly 100,000.
• In nearly half of the deaths, an Alaska state trooper fired the fatal shot.
While the facts of each case varied widely, common themes appeared. One repeated scenario involved police who met with resistance or a fleeing suspect while trying to serve warrants. When that suspect produced a gun, officers fired.
Another repeated scenario: Officers responded to calls about a person in a mental health crisis or acting violently, the person produced a weapon, and officers fired.
In the majority of cases, the person killed was armed with a gun. In some cases they fired on police before officers returned fire.
In eight cases, the person killed carried some kind of a bladed weapon — ranging from a sword to an ulu to a machete to a small pocketknife.
In other cases, the person killed possessed another item the officer perceived as a deadly weapon — as in the case of Eric Hash, a Copper Center man who was shot soon after an Alaska state trooper pulled up to investigate a domestic-disturbance call.
The trooper saw Hash holding some kind of “accelerant” and feared he’d set the patrol car on fire, the review reported. Nash’s family said in a statement at the time that the situation unfolded in seconds, and that Hash was left to bleed on the ground while an ambulance was summoned from a half-hour away.
In the case of Kelly Stephens, the Juneau tattoo artist was swinging a makeshift dog leash over his head when an officer shot him.
Micah McComas was handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser in Seward when he somehow scrambled into the front seat and tried to drive away. He was shot. Prosecutors determined that he could have used the car to kill the officer.
Larry Kobuk was unarmed when he was restrained by several correctional officers at the Anchorage jail in 2015. In a video of Kobuk’s last minutes, he can be heard repeatedly telling four officers he “can’t breathe.” Prosecutors found that the type of restraint used was “not usually fatal” and cleared the correctional officers.
Kobuk’s death is the only one of the 43 identified that doesn’t involve officers shooting a suspect, and the only one that involved officers from the Department of Corrections.
Nikolai Yakunin, a commercial fisherman and the son of a Russian Orthodox priest in Nikolaevsk, fought an Alaska state trooper on the porch of a home before being shot.
Aaron Tolen also physically grappled with an officer before being shot, police have said. And Jon Ployhar, pulled over for a bad brake light on the Seward Highway, got into a physical struggle with the officer before grabbing the officer’s Taser. He was shot once in the lung.
None of the 37 completed case examinations the Daily News reviewed recommended charges be filed against a law enforcement officer.
In most cases, the reviews made no mention of police trying to use tasers, pepper spray or other forms of less lethal force before shooting. Many of the cases unfolded quickly, with officers firing shots within seconds of encountering the suspect or during a pursuit involving vehicles.
During the same time frame the Daily News examined, at least four law enforcement officers were hit by gunfire. One, Sgt. Allen Brandt of Fairbanks, died after complications from a surgical procedure related to a shooting. In that case, the shooter was convicted of murder by a Fairbanks jury.
There were also several examples of non-fatal uses of deadly force, in which police shot someone and the person survived. The most recent happened on Thursday, when Anchorage police wounded an Eagle River man who had been reported firing a weapon at neighbors’ homes.
Police leaders say the public misunderstands just how split-second the decisions to use deadly force are, and how complicated.
“These situations are extremely volatile, dynamic, and happen extremely quickly,” Anchorage Police Department Chief Justin Doll said in an interview.
“There tends to be gross oversimplification,” he said, in discussion of fatal use of force.
Officers are authorized, and must, act to protect their own lives and the lives of bystanders, he said. It’s hard to put the scenarios in which officers shoot into neat categories, and to come up with one-size-fits-all solutions for how to prevent them.
You could examine the 43 deaths and “think you can come up with a rule that makes all these things better,” Doll said. “Tomorrow something happens you didn’t anticipate, that’s outside the rule you made.”
The Anchorage Police Department changed its own use-of-force policies around 2014, banning officers from shooting into moving vehicles in most circumstances.
“Deadly force is only used when there are no other options,” is how Megan Peters, a spokeswoman with the Alaska State Troopers, described her agency’s use-of-force policy.
Officers who use deadly force — more than once
On June 2, 2016, a Palmer father called 911 to say that his son was pacing the streets of the neighborhood, not doing anything particularly threatening but “making neighbors nervous.”
The father told police that Joshua Smith, 33, had a history of bipolar disorder and depression.
“He believed that his son needed help,” a prosecutor later wrote.
Troopers came to do a welfare check. The first officer on scene tried talking to Smith, speaking calmly and asking for “his side of the story,” the prosecutor wrote. More troopers arrived, including Christopher Havens, a police dog handler based in Wasilla.
“Trooper Havens observed Smith in the roadway holding a dog on a leash,” the prosecutor’s report found. “Trooper Havens believed Smith was in a ‘fighting stance‘; he confirmed he had a knife in his pocket.”
Havens was the first to pull out a gun. He determined “lethal overwatch” was necessary because of the kitchen knife Smith was holding, the prosecutor determined. The situation escalated: Smith expressed anxiety and confusion about traffic on the street. He pulled the kitchen knife from his pocket and put it to his neck. And, according to the review, he started to run at some of the officers who had formed a perimeter around him. That’s when he was shot four times as his wife watched.
Prosecutors cleared Havens and the other trooper who fired of criminal prosecution, saying Smith’s knife posed a deadly threat, but called the case “a tragedy.”
It wasn’t the only time prosecutors would be called on to review a fatal shooting by Havens.
A review of records shows that two officers, Havens and former Fairbanks police officer Tyler Larimer, have each fired shots in three fatal incidents within the past five years.
Havens and another officer simultaneously shot and killed Justin Quincy Smith, also in 2017. Smith had just shot -- and killed -- Havens’ police dog during a pursuit.
In 2018, Havens shot Cameron McCarthy, a homeless, orphaned teenager from Wasilla who crawled on a hotel rooftop in downtown Palmer for an hourslong standoff before moving toward the window of an apartment, holding a machete. Prosecutors have not yet made a determination in that case.
Larimer was involved in the 2019 death in Fairbanks of Garrett James Ebenal, whom police were pursuing as a crime spree suspect. He stepped out of a car with a gun and was shot. Larimer also fired on Shawn Buck, who rammed police cars as officers tried to stop him on a warrant and stepped out of a car with a gun.
Larimer was one of five officers who shot a total of 23 bullets into Cody Eyre, a young military academy graduate who had been in a long standoff with police during a mental health crisis on Christmas Eve 2017. Larimer has since left the Fairbanks Police Department.
Larmier declined to comment due to a pending civil lawsuit over Eyre’s death. Havens did not respond to an email asking for his perspective.
When asked whether three separate deadly use-of-force incidents within five years for a single trooper would warrant further scrutiny, the Alaska State Troopers responded that some assignments, such as working as a police dog handler, would place an officer in “more high-risk scenarios than regular patrol troopers.”
The Daily News analysis of records also identified six other officers who have fired shots in at least two deadly incidents.
People in crisis
The Daily News found that mental health crises run through many recent fatal encounters with police.
Lisa McEnulty is the widow of Kevin McEnulty, a 25-year-old Alaska Native man shot in Fairbanks in 2019 when he “brandished a weapon” at officers responding to a disturbance call.
McEnulty was a young father originally from Galena pursuing a career in the Ironworkers Union, his widow said. He had been in treatment for alcohol abuse and was suicidal on the day of his fatal encounter with police, she said.
He was a threat to himself, not officers, she said. McEnulty, who is studying to become an attorney, wants troopers to undergo more training on racial bias and tactics for de-escalating situations.
“They should have used rubber bullets and de-escalation techniques,” she said.
She’s been left to raise their now 3-year-old daughter.
“Every day when she wakes up, she asks about him,” McEnulty said.
Prosecutors’ reviews hint at the crises that led law enforcement to encounter the people killed in the first place:
Adrian Devon Herron of Wasilla was “in the midst of a three-day psychotic episode” and had called 911 to report he was being monitored when troopers showed up to assuage his fears. They saw him stabbing his wife and shot him, also wounding her, according to a prosecutor’s review.
Justin Leman of Kasilof told troopers “radio waves were causing him to feel numbness and have heart palpitations” when they arrived because he’d fired a gun and a family member thought he needed a mental health evaluation. He ran through snowy woods away from troopers and was ultimately shot when he raised a gun from his lap in a clearing. Troopers found he had taken off his shoes, socks and jacket in deep snow as he fled.
Tristan Vent, a young man from Huslia, “complained that he was hallucinating” during a standoff in which he dropped a gun and kicked it away from his body, then sat on a tailgate for more than eight minutes. He was shot as he nudged toward picking it up from the ground. Vent’s family sued, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the police.
Herman Bean, a homeless Anchorage man, was described by prosecutors as suffering from “chronic schizophrenic and bipolar disorder.” He was shot by police when he advanced on them with a butcher knife.
Benjamin Zeckovic, who threw hatchets shoplifted from Home Depot at Anchorage police, had called 911 earlier that week to announce that he was suicidal and make violent threats to dispatchers.
Cody Eyre’s mother called 911 to ask for help for her depressed, suicidal son, who was walking in frigid Fairbanks winter temperatures carrying a gun. Officers ultimately shot him 23 times.
Patricia Kruger was paranoid and believed someone was threatening her life, a prosecutor’s review found. When a trooper came to her Houston trailer, she pointed a gun at him. At first he backed out slowly. When she fired a shot through the ceiling and fixed the gun on him again, he shot her.
Alaska State Troopers fired a shot in 21 of the 43 cases. The agency has about 300 commissioned officers and a geographic range that spans much of the state.
The Anchorage Police Department, the state’s largest police force with roughly 425 officers, was involved in 12 fatal shootings.
Troy Payne, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor who has studied police use of force, points to the agency’s wide jurisdiction and the unique conditions under which its officers work — often sent alone to remote villages where volatile situations are unfolding.
“The Alaska State Troopers frequently work in a context like none other in the country,” Payne said.
Sometimes a single officer is sent to an incident where four or five would be sent in a city, creating “a different dynamic of safety,” he said.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety declined interviews for this story, instead answering questions by email.
“Troopers have a right and duty to defend themselves and others from deadly harm,” wrote Peters, the spokeswoman.
When using deadly force, troopers “follow the guidance offered by the U.S. Supreme Court,” taking into account “the immediacy of the threat presented, and whether or not the person is resisting or attempting to flee.”
During training, new officers take courses on cultural awareness, bias and use of force, among other topics, Peters wrote. Would-be troopers run through 60 scenarios to reinforce “objectively reasonable use of force decisions,” she wrote.
What should the public understand about when and why troopers use deadly force?
“While we teach and encourage de-escalation, such techniques are not appropriate when someone’s life is in imminent jeopardy,” she said.
Also: “It is never lawful to resist arrest, and if they feel that their rights are being violated then the appropriate recourse is in the court of law, not with the officer making the decision to arrest.”
‘Morally we want that number to be zero'
Just how prevalent are law enforcement killings in Alaska? And how does the state stack up against others?
That’s difficult to know, researchers say.
No government agency tracks statewide police killings in Alaska.
Researchers who study the use of police force say data on fatal law enforcement shootings is lacking nationally.
Recently circulated statistics putting the state near the top nationally of per-capita police shootings may be misleading, said Brad Myrstol, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor and researcher. That’s because with a low baseline number of incidents paired with a relatively low population, rates are highly variable, he said.
It is important to remember just how rare fatal encounters are considering just how many interactions police have with members of the public, Myrstol said.
While each police shooting represents a tragedy, they remain, in overall numbers, rare in Alaska. In each of the last five years, police have killed between one and eight people. So far this year, seven Alaskans have died in law enforcement encounters.
U.S. police have roughly 50 million interactions with people aged 16 and over in any given year, from traffic citations to vehicle accidents to criminal investigations, Myrstol said. And about 1,000 people are killed by police in the United States each year, he said.
“It’s an infinitesimally small number of these contacts that end with someone getting killed,” Myrstol said.
“Morally, we want that number to be zero,” he said. “Not 1,000 -- but zero.”
So it’s worth looking closely at the kinds of situations that end in a death, he said — especially in the well-documented racial disparities in police use of force.
Black and American Indian and Alaska Native people are “significantly more likely” to be killed by police than white people, according to widely cited 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research found that Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over their lifetime than are white men, while Black women are 1.4 times more likely. The same study found that Indigenous people are also more likely than white people to die by police force.
“Although risks are estimated with less precision for American Indian/Alaska Native men and women than for other groups, we show that they face a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do whites,” the authors wrote.
The Daily News could not determine the race of the victim in all Alaska cases. But using obituaries, limited police data, court system records and other public identifications, we were able to determine that close to half of the 43 people killed were non-white.
At least 14 of those victims were Alaska Native, about a third of the overall people killed, representing a disproportionate rate. Alaska Natives account for about 15 percent of the state’s overall population.
At least four of the people killed were Black, representing roughly 10 percent of the overall cases in a state where the population is 4 percent Black. Two people killed were Asian or Pacific Islander.
The people killed in police shootings were overwhelmingly male, with only two women among the cases identified. The youngest, Daelyn Polu, was 16. The oldest, Robert Musser, was 69.
‘I had to fight for awareness about him dying’
For Lisa McEnulty, the death of her husband, Kevin McEnulty, was met mostly with silence. People seemed almost to accept it, she said.
“People think it’s normal that oh, another Native got shot,” said McEnulty, who is originally from the village of Shungnak but lives in Fairbanks. “Like they were doing something bad, they must have deserved it.”
So McEnulty began posting on social media about her husband, using the hashtag #JusticeForKevin.
“I had to fight for awareness about him dying,” she said.
That is one thing that has changed in the past two months.
“After George Floyd’s death, now everyone is talking about it.”
Contact the reporter: email@example.com. Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed.