What's it Like to Be a Police Officer in Alaska?
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Law enforcement officials from 'Alaska PD' tell us about the unique challenges of policing in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
To the average citizen, the idea of detaining a car burglar in the act is heart-stopping. Make that burglar 8 feet tall, 900 pounds and with claws that are thick as cigars, and the danger feels otherworldly.
But for Mike Sortor, a patrol sergeant for the Kodiak Police Department, it's just a day on the job.
Sortor helps protect the City of Kodiak (pop. 5,968) from some 1,700 Kodiak brown bears who live on Kodiak, a small island in the Gulf of Alaska, just off the state's south coast.
"We're right on nature's doorstep," Sortor says. "What becomes commonplace for us is not necessarily what [people] in New York would experience."
In Kodiak, brown bears are such a constant threat that Sortor says the police department is familiar with the worst offenders and has names for them.
"Right now, we have three that we're dealing with in town: the little bear, the big bear and the lanky bear," Sortor says.
"The big bear is the biggest concern," he adds. "It's ripping off car doors and stuff. That's kind of the line we draw—once they start intruding on vehicles. When the bear becomes a burglar."
The Wildest West
By state, Alaska has the highest violent crime rate in the country. Merideth attributes that lawlessness to the kinds of characters attracted to a second life in a place like Fairbanks.
"Fairbanks is kind of the end of the road," Merideth says. "A lot of people come up here to be away from society. They think the law doesn't apply to them; there's a lawless atmosphere."
Merideth says rampant alcohol abuse exacerbates the problem. In addition to being one of the most violent states in the country, Alaska is also one of the drunkest. "We're up in the middle of nowhere," says Merideth. "So people drink a lot."
In Kodiak, Sortor says the frontier spirit also brings a transient population, especially in the summer, when the fishing industry booms and there's quick money to be made for unskilled laborers. That population turnover makes the island an easy place for outlaws to hide.
In Kotzebue, an Alaskan town that's more than 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, citizens also regularly turn that violence against themselves, says Sergeant Norman Hughes of the Kotzebue Police Department.
There are no roads in to Kotzebue—only boat and plane access—so the bodies get flown to the medical examiner via Alaska Airlines.
Dangerous Weather and Undermanned Departments
In large cities like New York and Chicago, summertime can herald violence; with more people outside in public spaces, violent crime rises. But in Alaska, the winter brings its own dangers.
In Fairbanks, Merideth says, brutal winter temperatures add an additional layer of difficulty to police trying to stay out of harm's way. "We all carry survival gear: warm hats, big gloves," Merideth says. "But you can't dress so heavy in clothes that you can't manipulate your gun."
In a city with average January lows of -17°F, that makes dressing for the job tricky.
In Kotzebue, Hughes says the constant blizzard threat makes policing particular challenging.
"We have a lot of blizzards," Hughes says. "And on days like that, it's hard to even get to the calls… Usually when we have a blizzard, it's high winds and snow at the same time. Some roads just kind of disappear."
Hughes says Kotzebue's police department is so undermanned that only one officer works at a time.
Kodiak's department is similarly undermanned.
"It's just one or two of us," Sortor says. "We're outnumbered. Compound that with the fact that you might be [patrolling] on a boat in a harbor at night—where no one can hear you scream."
Whether it's Fairbanks, Petersburg, Kodiak, or Kotzebue, you can watch every minute of the action with new episodes of "Alaska PD" every Thursday night at 9pm EST on A&E!