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Crime & Courts

Troopers have no obligation to police Turnagain Arm communities, attorney general says

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2016

Alaska's attorney general says the state is under no obligation to continue to police Turnagain Arm communities, rejecting a demand by Anchorage officials that troopers provide protection beyond traffic enforcement of the Seward Highway.

Attorney General Craig Richards was responding to a letter from Anchorage's city attorney, who said that the law required Alaska State Troopers to continue to respond to law enforcement calls at places like Indian. The troopers have said that budget considerations are forcing them to close their post in Girdwood.

The Anchorage Police Department doesn't normally patrol Girdwood or the Turnagain Arm area even though those locations are within the municipal boundary. A vote is scheduled in Girdwood for April to allow residents to decide if they want to pay for cops from Whittier to provide local law enforcement.

Richards said the law doesn't oblige troopers to provide police services statewide — it only allows them to.

"(W)e disagree that AST is exercising discretion 'to leave an area of the state entirely without general law enforcement services,'" Richards said in his letter dated Feb. 12.

In a letter the previous week, Anchorage municipal attorney Bill Falsey said the city wanted clarification on whether the state is obligated to provide police services to the small roadside communities between McHugh Creek and Girdwood.

In the letter to Department of Public Safety Col. James Cockrell, Falsey argued state law required troopers to enforce criminal laws statewide.

"In practice, the Alaska State Troopers are the 'primary' source of law enforcement for all Alaskans 'who live in places that do not have local certified police officers.' Elsewhere, they serve as a 'secondary' source of law enforcement," Falsey said.

Anchorage, under state law, is a borough that does not provide law enforcement on an areawide basis, Falsey added, and there is no requirement to do so. The Anchorage Police Department provides police protection in the city's metropolitan area, he said.

The Anchorage Assembly lacks the authority to extend that police service area on its own. Falsey said in an interview Tuesday that Anchorage residents could extend the area by vote, but they're not being asked to do so during the upcoming election.

Last year, troopers cited budget cuts across state departments as the reason for pulling out of Girdwood. The state initially said it would close the post there in early 2016 but announced a six-month extension in October.

Three troopers will continue to provide traffic enforcement on the Seward Highway from Girdwood and back up Anchorage police as needed, Richards said.

The upcoming closure sent Girdwood officials scrambling to come up with solutions. Currently, the Girdwood Board of Supervisors' preferred method for filling the public safety gap calls for increasing the town's taxes and sharing police services with nearby Whittier, a separate city with its own police department.

Girdwood taxpayers will vote on those changes during the April elections.

But the other small communities in the municipality south of McHugh Creek are not part of the solution. The Turnagain Arm Community Council, which covers Indian, Bird Creek, Portage and Rainbow, has held meetings to educate its residents on policing in the area and discuss what should be done about the shifting responsibility.

The council's president, Beau Obrigewitch, said residents haven't been involved as much in the ongoing discussion, and there are concerns about the reduced level of service.

While APD is required to respond to public emergencies — imminent threats of death, some domestic violence cases and disasters — the larger concern is crimes like burglaries. People worry break-ins won't be investigated, let alone be documented by police reports, he said.

Richards said the municipality's assertions that troopers are required to enforce criminal laws statewide are untrue. The Alaska Supreme Court has held otherwise, he said.

Citing past cases, the attorney general said that "the court found 'the word 'may' in (that) state statute affords the police officer … permissive authority, not an obligatory authority.'

"It is our understanding that the Anchorage Police Department presently aims to employ over 100 more officers than the entire statewide AST will have in the coming fiscal years, and we believe AST has the clear discretion to allocate its limited law enforcement resources where they are most needed," Richards said.

He also argued against Falsey's arguments that the Turnagain Arm communities are similar to other roadside communities served by the troopers.

Richards said places like Anchor Point and Ninilchik are in a second-class borough with no policing powers. The towns along Turnagain Arm are part of the Anchorage municipality, and it has those powers, he said.

Falsey said the conversation is ongoing. He said that on July 1, the level of service troopers have provided traditionally in the area will diminish. It is unlikely a resolution can be reached that preserves the status quo.

"Even if we're able to convince the troopers otherwise, there will be a time lag or some amount of time where the services will falter," Falsey said.

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