Alaska State Troopers assaulted on the job dramatically increases

Published: May. 9, 2017 at 12:51 PM AKDT
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Colonel James Cockrell, director of the Alaska State Troopers, retires this week, after almost a 30 year career with the department and an even longer history with the force. Channel 2 spoke with him today about increasing assaults on troopers (52 in 2013 up to 131 in 2016), low staffing and retirement. Below is an edited version of that Q-and-A conversation.

Where are these assaults happening and in what part of the state?

Primarily, they're happening in our urban areas of Alaska. Generally, from more urban areas - Mat-Su Valley, Fairbanks and Kenai Peninsula - and then on a lesser extent, out in rural Alaska.

Why are there more assaults?

I think we're contacting more people. The people that we're contacting in urban Alaska are a lot different than they are in rural Alaska. I think rural Alaska has a higher respect for the Alaska State Troopers. We're dealing with high-risk criminals in our more urban areas, and if you look at the results, in the last three years our assaults have dramatically increased. I think that's a direct result in the reductions of troopers we have on the road. We're having troopers contact people in a one-on-one situation. Individuals are more apt to fight with us, if they think they have an advantage, when we don't have back-up. We don't have two or three troopers responding to a high-risk crime in progress. The consequences are that people are more apt to fight with our troopers.

What types of crimes are happening, when these assaults happen? I know domestic violence tends to lead to dangerous situations for officers....

We're essentially seeing major pursuits every week,

. I think also what's involved is the increase in drug abuse. In Alaska, a lot of the people that are assaulting us are high on drugs. I mean, realistically, you have a patrol officer contact this many people who have drugs in their vehicles and on their persons - that's how much we have a drug problem.

What does "assault" mean to you? Is it kicking and punching?

It can be kicking, punching, pushing a trooper down or pointing a firearm at a trooper. And then, ultimately, the worst is shooting at at trooper - actually shooting and killing a trooper.

What is to blame?

I think there's generally a little bit less respect for law enforcement. I think a lot of that spurred from the Lower 48. Drug abuse is very high. The people we're contacting, generally we're contacting because they did something bad. And a lot of those people that we're in contact with are on alcohol or drugs, and they make bad decisions, bad choices. And we're contacting them in a one-on-one situation, and it gives them more incentive to lash back a the troopers to try to get away.

How many trooper positions have you lost?

In the last three years, we've lost 32 trooper positions. We're below 300 authorized positions. And currently we have 272 working - boots are on the ground right now - and those are unacceptable numbers for a state this large, with the responsibilities we have. Just totally unrealistic for us to do the job that we're sworn and obligated to do.

What would you say to lawmakers?

I think talk is cheap. Every campaign I've listened to, public safety is number one. And I think, realistically, show us the money, because it hasn't happened for our department in the last three years.

Are you sad to be leaving?

I am. Like I say, it's been a challenging, rewarding four years [as director]. I'm extremely proud of this agency. I have about 29 years with the Alaska State Troopers. My dad was an Alaska State trooper, retired trooper. He started in 1963. So we've been a part of the Alaska State Troopers since 1963, so I'm certainly sad. This is closing this chapter in my career, but it's potentially not closing the book on my service with public safety. When you look at what we do around this state - look at the cases and look at the stuff we have to deal with - we do an incredible job. You just read the newspapers, watch it, just see what we're doing every day, and there's not an agency that can do what we do, with what we have with the limited resources. There's just no way.