WASILLA — When Alaska State Troopers shot and killed 36-year-old Justin Quincy Smith early Sunday morning, it marked the fourth officer-involved shooting in Mat-Su in just nine months.
Two of the four recent incidents involved trooper K-9s killed after they were released to pursue suspects fleeing on foot.
Three of the incidents involved the same police dog handler: trooper Christopher Havens.
Havens fired his weapon in both of the K-9 incidents. Havens also fired his weapon in another officer-involved shooting in June 2016.
Havens, who started with the troopers in 2012, was Rico and Helo's handler. The dogs became the first trooper K-9s in Alaska to die in the line of duty.
Since 2013, there have been 10 fatal trooper-involved shootings around Alaska.
Both the troopers and the state Office of Special Prosecutions are conducting separate investigations into the most recent shooting, which also involved trooper Jason Somerville, who has been with the troopers since August 2015.
Troopers say it's important to note that at any given time relatively few troopers are working the Mat-Su, an area the size of West Virginia, and even fewer dog handlers.
With Rico's death, there are only two other working K-9s in Mat-Su.
Dog handlers respond to high-risk calls such as pursuits or barricaded suspects, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.
"As a result these officers are involved in more of these type of situations than the average trooper," Peters wrote in an email.
The role of K-9s in two of the four officer-involved shootings highlights the importance of making sure troopers adhere to policy and practices guiding the use of dogs in pursuits, said Troy Payne, an assistant professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.
Payne worked closely with the Anchorage Police Department on use of force, authoring a pivotal 2013 report that informed department policy. He's currently working with troopers on an unrelated project.
Dogs can terrify a fleeing suspect, who might choose to shoot, Payne said.
Then again, he said, it's hard to say how the Smith shooting could have unfolded differently if the dog had stayed in the patrol car. Would the shooting have been avoided? Could a trooper have been hurt or killed?
"Clearly you had a citizen there who was willing to shoot somebody," he said. "That's a tough call."
Smith at the time of his death was wanted on a $20,000 felony warrant linked to a February incident at the Point Woronzof parking area, according to documents filed in Anchorage court.
On Feb. 23, Smith fled the parking lot after an airport security officer found him there after posted closing hours at 1:49 a.m. and showing signs of intoxication, according to a sworn affidavit filed by airport police officer Matthew Presser. Smith was on probation for second-degree assault.
Smith provided the wrong name — his brother's — and then, after refusing to get out of the vehicle, fled in reverse, damaging a wooden pylon and forcing Presser to get out of the way to avoid being hit, the officer wrote.
Another officer had his arm inside Smith's vehicle when he started to drive off and had to remove it quickly, Presser said. Smith drove 70 mph in a 35 mph zone until Presser and other officers ended their pursuit at Minnesota Drive.
The four most recent shootings involved a variety of circumstances:
• Havens and Sgt. Jacob Covey fired shots at 33-year-old Joshua Smith near his home outside Palmer in June 2016 after he was reported to be agitated and shouting in the street. A third trooper used a stun gun. Witnesses told KTUU that Smith was walking the street arguing with a woman before police came. They said they later heard him yelling, "Kill me!" He died at Providence Alaska Medical Center the next day.
• Havens and Palmer police officer Antonio Aldesperger fired at 25-year-old Almando Abarca, striking him in the shoulder, in September 2016. Abarca started a high-speed pursuit on the Glenn Highway after he was pulled over for having no taillights, according to charges. He was wanted on probation violations for a 2014 burglary charge. Havens released K-9 Helo after Abarca's car rolled to a stop on a dirt road and he ran.
• Lt. James Helgoe, with the Special Emergency Reaction Team, shot and killed 35-year-old Jean Valescot in February at a Big Lake home after an hours-long standoff that began when Valescot called 911 and threatened to shoot anyone who came to the house. He was shot when he came to the door holding a young child and two guns, one in each hand.
• Havens and Somerville fired shots at Justin Smith before 4 a.m. Sunday after he ignored their commands and tried to flee, troopers said. Smith killed K-9 Rico before being fired on by troopers, according to an online dispatch. Smith was wanted on assault and probation-violation warrants and was stopped for a traffic violation before leading troopers on a 45-minute pursuit that ended with spike strips deployed near Mile 45.5 Parks Highway. He died at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.
The Smith shooting as well as the Valescot shooting are still under review by the Office of Special Prosecutions.
The other two shootings involving Havens and others were found to be justified, according to June Stein, an assistant attorney general who is currently the only prosecutor handling use-of-force cases for the Office of Special Prosecutions.
She's just starting to review the Smith case. Stein said it's "rare" that one officer is involved in three shootings like this but that doesn't necessarily mean Havens did anything wrong. Havens' history could factor into her review but so could other incidents he's been involved in if he was able to de-escalate the situation, she said.
Troopers do a preliminary investigation in any deadly use-of-force case to see if criminal laws were violated, then forward the case to the Office of Special Prosecutions for a determination, Peters said. Then the case returns to the troopers for evaluation on various elements including whether troopers followed policy, address officer safety, and general lessons learned to "potentially improve our response to these situations," she said.
Publicly releasing details after such an evaluation can be problematic if personnel details are involved, Peters said.
She said in an email that it's impossible to know until all reviews are completed if there is any broad reason why "those four people … chose to arm themselves, put other persons in danger, and force us to take the actions we did. The troopers never want to see situations end like these did, with the loss of life."
Payne, with the Justice Center at UAA, said the troopers would benefit from maintaining an open conversation with the public about what happened with the shootings and if there are any connecting factors.
"The question for the agency and I think the people that live there is, 'Is this a bigger problem?' " he said. "The only way to address that is with transparency from the agency and ultimately trust from the public."
NOTE: This story has been edited to reflect that June Stein, not Jean Stein, is an assistant attorney general handling use-of-force cases for the Office of Special Prosecutions.