Trooper director: Haines post next in line to be cut


Alaska Department of Public Safety Col. James Cockrell warned last week that if his agency suffered continued budget cuts, Haines will be the next rural community in the state to lose its state trooper.

“If we get any more cuts in our resources, Haines will be the first post we close,” he said.

Haines Borough last week drafted a letter asking whether Alaska State Troopers plan to replace Andrew Neason, the area’s only blue-uniformed trooper, who announced he will leave his post Dec. 15 after three-and-a-half years on the job.

They might not like the answer.

Currently, Haines Highway between the townsite and the Canadian border is patrolled by two state lawmen – Neason and State Wildlife Trooper Trent Chwialkowski. Upon Neason’s departure, Chwialkowski will apparently pick up Neason’s responsibilities.

“We are gravely concerned that ongoing state and local budget challenges are threatening the Alaska State Trooper-Haines Borough Post,” said the letter, drafted by Mayor Jan Hill, borough manager Bill Seward and police chief Heath Scott.

“The lack of this post being back-filled will threaten to undermine public safety and the emergency readiness of first-responders in our region.”

Cockrell said the decision to replace Neason will be delayed until the department learns whether it will suffer any additional cuts in the next fiscal year.

State budget cuts have slashed trooper numbers in many rural communities across Alaska.

Over the last two fiscal years, Alaska State Troopers have lost 32 trooper positions and more than $7 million of their budget. “We haven’t had an equipment budget for two years,” Cockrell said.

He said the department has tried to base its cuts in more urban areas. “We’ve tried to leave rural Alaska as full as we can,” he said, adding the continued budget cuts are bringing hard choices.

The agency has already closed posts in Girdwood, Ninilchik, McGrath and Talkeetna.

Cockrell said Haines has other agencies such as its townsite police department to help pick up the slack. If no further cuts occur, Cockrell said a replacement for Neason would not arrive in Haines until August at the earliest. “We’re very concerned about our staffing numbers,” he said.

“Alaska State Troopers are undermanned even when every position is filled. In areas with high crimes and sexual assaults, we simply cannot keep up with the calls for service,” he added.

Borough officials worry if Haines joins the list, a border area will be ripe for drug importation, and domestic and sexual abuse cases won’t be prosecuted. The letter written last week includes an attachment showing that court cases and crimes have risen in Haines in the last year.

Haines Police plan to hold town meetings this month in Haines and Mosquito Lake to discuss the loss of trooper service.

“What concerns me is that we are a border town. The trooper covers the Haines Highway all the way to the border. The borough police have a limited area in town,” said Mayor Hill. “We’ve gone through this before. We’ve had troopers here only to lose them after a few years. It’s a concern.”

Hill said she had to look out for her own constituents.

“We understand state budget cuts. We’re heading into our own budget season as well. So we get it,” she said. “But we feel strongly about trooper coverage. So, as much as we understand, we need to make the case for the services we need.”

Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Matt Hightower, Neason’s supervisor in Juneau, said both the state and wildlife troopers are interchangeable and “are charged with enforcing the same laws.”

“Still, anytime we lose a trooper, it adds another dynamic to our response from Juneau.”

Asked whether a wildlife trooper could do the work of two, Hightower said, “That’s not for me to speculate.”

He said Alaska State Troopers will continue to investigate Haines-area crimes out of Juneau. Officers will be sent here in what he called “non-patterned time frames.”

Neason said his job involved patrolling the Haines Highway to the U.S./Canadian border, criminal investigations outside the townsite, assisting the Haines Police department, and conducting search-and-rescue operations.

“The visible difference in our focus is the amount of traffic enforcement,” he said. “Trent has done it, but he’s usually focusing on his wildlife.”

Neason said he spent a year as the only trooper here and assisted wildlife officials in Juneau, who were without a body on the ground in Haines.

“It’s one of those things,” Neason said. “You do what you can do. My hope is that they’ll replace me. The winter might get slow. But come summer, there’s enough work to keep more than two troopers busy.”

Chwialkowski transferred to the Haines post this year from the Anchor Point and Homer area. Neason has been here since 2013.

A native of Pennsylvania, Neason put his house on the market last summer. Last month, the borough assembly decided not to send a preemptive letter to state government in response to rumors that Neason was leaving for good.

Assembly member Tom Morphet, owner of the Chilkat Valley News, recommended a letter be sent to the Alaska State Troopers to request the Haines detachment not lose an officer.

The assembly voted 4-2 against the proposal.

“We shouldn’t speculate without concrete information from the troopers,” assembly member Margaret Friedenaeur said then. “There’s a way to do it without throwing (ourselves) under the bus.”

Now Neason has made it official that he is indeed leaving the trooper’s force to move to Hawaii. Neason said he hopes he’s replaced, but said his hands are tied.

“The move had nothing to do with Haines or the people here,” Neason said. “I loved this job.”


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