PALMER — A new Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly resolution urges residents to own weapons and ammunition to compensate for limited local law enforcement in Alaska’s fastest growing region.
The action, which doesn’t have the power of law, reflects ongoing discussion in the region about the lack of local policing power as the Alaska State Troopers struggle with continued staffing issues that have left the local detachment with roughly 20% of positions unfilled.
Unlike Anchorage, which has lost residents overall for the last nine years, Mat-Su has steadily grown. The borough population reached over 111,000 residents in 2022, the most recent year for which state data is available. Between 2010 and 2022, the region gained almost 23,000 residents.
The resolution, sponsored by assembly members Ron Bernier and Dee McKee, was approved unanimously by the assembly during a Jan. 16 meeting.
“Whereas residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough can provide for the emergency management of the borough, and provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the borough … every eligible resident residing in the borough is encouraged to maintain a firearm, and ammunition thereof,” it states.
The resolution, which also asks firearm owners to learn about safe weapon use and maintenance, does not define who is an eligible resident. It does not create any enforceable laws.
Bernier, whose district covers Susitna Valley communities including Willow and Trapper Creek, said he sponsored the language as a way to encourage residents to protect themselves.
“You should have the right to stand up for yourself and take care of yourself and your family first and your community,” he said during the meeting. “There’s going to be times where things are going to get real. You all should be prepared.”
At issue is a longstanding law enforcement staffing challenge across a borough that’s roughly the size of West Virginia. While the cities of Palmer and Wasilla have their own police forces, the borough does not. A 2019 study found operating a borough police force would cost more than $14 million annually.
That leaves the job up to the Alaska State Troopers, who operate from outposts in Palmr and west of Wasilla in Meadow Lakes. Budget cuts in 2015 closed a third outpost near Talkeetna, and ongoing recruitment and retention challenges have left troopers short-staffed.
As of early December, 14 of the 67 commissioned officer positions covering Mat-Su and Southcentral sat unfilled, with a total of 51 of 306 commissioned positions unfilled statewide, according to troopers spokesman Tim DeSpain.
Those empty officer jobs have not had “any significant impacts to operations,” DeSpain said in an email.
But Bernier believes the long trooper response times seen by residents he’s heard from create a safety hazard.
“I’ve got people out at Trapper Creek that can wait an hour and a half, two hours before they see a trooper,” he said during assembly meeting. “I think it’s just a good idea to deter criminals, and you are responsible for the safety of yourself. You are the first responder on the scene.”
Multiple people spoke against the resolution during public comment at the meeeting. Several expressed concern it could lead to lawlessness.
“Seriously, what is the point of this?” said DJ McBride, a Caswell Lakes resident who spoke at the meeting. “This leads down the road to vigilantism and allows people to think that they can take the law into their own hands, rather than call the troopers.”
The resolution follows an effort Bernier spearheaded late last year to petition the Alaska Legislature to fund firearms education in Mat-Su as a means of helping residents protect their homes and communities. Bernier ultimately withdrew that proposal.