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Crime & Courts

This Aleutian town has lost its entire police department

The entire police force of Sand Point quit in July, leaving the town without any law enforcement presence.

Sand Point is an Aleutian island town of about 1,000 that swells by several hundred people during the summer commercial fishing and processing season. Until mid-July, it had a police force of three officers and a police chief.

A view of Sand Point appears off the port side of the Tustumena ferry as it approaches the village in 2015. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Trouble started around July 10, when the first police officer quit when his military spouse was transferred out of state, said city manager Andy Varner.

Soon after, two police officers — a married couple — resigned from their jobs "to take care of some personal family issues."

That left police chief Roger Bacon.

But when Bacon opted to go on a long-planned monthlong vacation to Scotland, leaving the town without any police presence, Bacon and the city council made a "kind of mutual" decision that he wouldn't have a job when he returned, according to Varner.

"It wasn't that acrimonious," he said.

For his part, Bacon told the KUCB Unalaska radio station that "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it."

That meant Sand Point had no police force left, at the peak of the frenzied commercial fishing and processing season.

On July 20, the city of Sand Point released a PSA calling for calm, saying that while the police department was "in transition," citizens should "rest assured that the community will NOT be in a lawless state."

Things actually went pretty smoothly in the days the town was without a police department, said Austin Roof, the general manager of the local public radio station KSDP 830 AM.

"Everyone was busy fishing, which was great," Roof said.

Sand Point did not devolve into mass lawlessness, Varner said.  There were no big police incidents, and 911 and emergency services still worked. If something had happened, the city would have called in the Alaska State Troopers.

"It's not like the movie 'The Purge,' " in which all criminal activity becomes legal for a 12-hour period, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters.

All told, Sand Point was only without law enforcement for four or five days, Varner said.

An Alaska State Trooper who was already scheduled to come to town for a prisoner transfer showed up early last week, Peters said. He didn't make a special trip to the island, but spent extra time doing some patrols.

"Just like any other community, if we need to respond, we do," she said. "We're not going to go man their police force for them, though."

The city has hired an interim police chief, Hal Henning, the former police chief of Seldovia, Varner said. Henning most recently worked as the town marshal of Winthrop, a small town in the Methow Valley of Washington state.

Losing the whole police department in a month is emblematic of the chronic problem remote, isolated communities have in hiring and retaining workers, Varner said: None of the three departing officers or the police chief had been on the job for more than five months.

"It's kind of a merry-go-round. If you can get officers, three years is a pretty good stint. A police chief would ideally be for longer."

Attracting and retaining police to a community a $1,000 round-trip plane ticket away from Anchorage has never been easy.

It was probably a good thing that the exodus happened in the summer, Varner said.

"It's kind of a funny dichotomy. In summer the population increases; there's more money around, which could be more trouble," he said. "But people are busy. When people are busy, there's no idle hands. They're focused on work."

In the winter, when it's dark and there's no fishing, crime sometimes rises. He said Sand Point hopes to have new police officers and a permanent chief in place by then.

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