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EDITORIAL: Should the Mat-Su do more to protect its residents?

Jan. 27—The headline was worth a smile — "Mat-Su assembly resolution urges residents to arm themselves." When reading about the municipality's elected leaders telling their constituents to keep a gun handy due to limitations in law enforcement's response across the West-Virginia-sized municipality, the thought crossing most Alaskans' minds was likely some variant of, "Who in the Mat-Su needs to be convinced to own a gun?" Indeed, it's a safe bet that few folks in the region need encouragement, as a strong majority of Alaska households rightly have one or more guns already — and, judging by the quickly depleted shelves at local gun stores, plenty of ammo, too.

But the Mat-Su resolution does raise a deeper issue: Why does Alaska's second-most populous municipality, a region that has seen substantial growth in recent years and where the median household income is $86,435, have a problem with too few police? The answer is as simple as it is surprising: Although the cities of Wasilla and Palmer have small police departments that patrol the narrowly defined city limits, 86% of the Mat-Su Borough's residents and more than 99% of its area have no local law enforcement — and that means Alaska State Troopers, funded by the resources belonging to all Alaskans, are covering the gap.

It's not as though it hasn't occurred to Mat-Su policymakers that a borough police department might be a good idea: In 2005, municipal leaders debated (and ultimately tabled) a plan to ask voters there whether to stand up a police force. In 2018, the municipality did ask its voters if they wanted to study a local police force — then, after voters said yes, shelved the idea when the study told them that a municipal police department would cost more than $14 million per year.

The result is that the 50-odd Alaska State Troopers stationed in the Mat-Su, instead of patrolling rural areas that were intended as the troopers' domain, spend most of their time in neighborhoods that are clearly part of Wasilla and Palmer. Their numbers simply aren't sufficient to provide adequate law enforcement response, and the Mat-Su Assembly knows it, or it wouldn't be telling residents to sleep with the hammer cocked. But instead of taking the reasonable step of instituting a municipal police department, the borough's elected leaders have made the political calculation that they'd rather keep taking a free ride on the state's dime — a telling statement about the thinness of those leaders' bluster about rugged individualism and self-sufficiency.

In an attempt to justify their unwillingness to provide for their constituents' public safety, Mat-Su policymakers might point to other populous areas, such as the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which don't maintain a borough police force. But in Fairbanks, a multitude of police forces — the Fairbanks and North Pole city departments, the Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base military police, the University of Alaska Fairbanks police and the Fairbanks International Airport police — cover more than half the borough's population. That's a far cry from the Mat-Su, where the absence of a borough police force leaves more than 90,000 Alaskans served only by troopers.

The lack of local Mat-Su police is an issue of public safety within the borough, but its impacts stretch far beyond the municipal borders. Having more troopers stationed in the urbanized areas of the Mat-Su means fewer can be stationed in the rural communities both on and off the road system, exacerbating the state's two-tiered justice system where one-third of Alaska villages have no local law enforcement presence.

There can be no doubt that the elected leaders in the Mat-Su would claim in their campaigns that they "back the blue," to use the parlance of our times. So why is it that, far more than any liberal bastion or inner city in the U.S., they have spent decades preemptively defunding the police?