October 25, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 43

After 5 months, trooper still awaits co-worker

Five months of doing a job intended for two is taking a toll, Alaska State Trooper Ken VanSpronsen said this week.

VanSpronsen arrived in June to serve as wildlife trooper covering the area north of Berners Bay. But delays in filling the other half of the trooper post here – the state trooper job – have required VanSpronsen to work both jobs and spread himself thin.

Trooper officials say the delay is part of a statewide manpower shortage.

“It doesn’t allow me to do either one (of the jobs) to the best of my ability, let’s put it that way,” VanSpronsen said this week. He said he has received as many as a dozen complaints from residents unsatisfied with trooper performance.

In the face of more pressing work, VanSpronsen hasn’t had much time for duties like patroling underage drinking parties or investigating complaints about anglers snagging fish, visitors dumping trash or people blasting off fireworks, he said. He has been to Skagway only three times.

Early this week, his office was cluttered with piles of papers and he had seven messages to be answered. “Once I get one stack cleaned up, another piles up,” he said.

As an example of the crunch, he pointed to an Oct. 10 vehicle rollover in which a woman was reportedly thrown from a vehicle near 13 Mile Haines Highway and spent a night there before making it to town the next day.

Although the highway is trooper jurisdiction and the accident was a typical trooper case, the Haines Police Department was first to respond the next morning. VanSpronsen was unable to interview the woman until Saturday, Oct. 13 – three days later – because of his schedule and communication issues.

VanSpronsen said when he accepted the job as wildlife trooper at the Haines post, he was under the impression it would be a two-man operation, as it has been for decades. Superiors haven’t told him when he can expect another trooper, he said, and as far as he knows, the position isn’t being advertised.

Trooper Lt. Rodney Dial, Southeast deputy commander, said the agency intends to fill the Haines position, although he couldn’t say when. Dial acknowledged the vacancy has a negative impact on the community and VanSpronsen’s ability to do his job.

“I do think some of his discretionary activities will be curtailed,” Dial said, explaining that VanSpronsen will likely continue to be more reactive than proactive due to the constraints, responding to crimes instead of patroling areas and discouraging criminal activity from occurring.

“It doesn’t mean in any regard that we don’t need another person in Haines, we do,” Dial said of the prolonged vacancy. “It just means that we can’t immediately fill it. We’re advocating constantly to get that position filled, and we will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Dial said there are currently more than 30 trooper vacancies in Alaska, mostly due to retirements and resignations. Of the 30 vacancies, only one is in Southeast. Troopers are concentrating their recruitment efforts on other regions that have multiple vacancies, he said.

In the meantime, Dial said troopers from Juneau have been coming up a couple of times a month to supplement VanSpronsen’s activities and pick up some slack, but acknowledged such help has been sporadic.

Dial said an obstacle is the 18-month span for an applicant to become a trooper, which includes an application process of 8-10 months, four months at the trooper academy, and three or four months of field training.

VanSpronsen said barring some disaster, he doesn’t think his discontent will be enough to pressure the agency into hiring another trooper.

“That’s unfortunately the way it is,” VanSpronsen said. “They’re not going to feel overwhelming pressure to fill it. Or until numerous complaints come in from the area, from citizens wanting it filled.”