By Meredith Jordan
Juneau Empire 

State pays retired troopers to ride on Alaska ferries

 

August 9, 2023 | View PDF



A new $120,000 program that puts retired state troopers in uniform on Alaska ferries is seeing results: no incidents and an appreciative crew, which has long been tasked with overseeing the occasional unruly passenger.

“We’re here to make sure that people enjoy their trips, but don’t interfere with other people enjoying their trips,” said retired trooper Chad Goeden, who was in uniform and stood out among passengers in casual clothes on the Columbia during the ferry’s three-day passage from Bellingham, Washington, to Ketchikan on July 14-17.

High visibility is the point, because the aim of the program is as much to serve as a deterrent as to handle incidents, he said.

Only one trooper is actively on duty on one Alaska Marine Highway System ferry at a time, and they could be on any one of the ships. Goeden, who served 24 years as a full-time trooper before his retirement, splits the position with retired trooper John Brown.

There are important reasons for the new program, said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, which coordinated with the Department of Transportation in creating it.

“Alaska certainly has a drug trafficking problem and that is one of the modalities where people are trying to bring dangerous substances into Alaska,” McDaniel said.

Between 2012 and 2021 there were 1,382 drug overdoses in the state, or about 138 deaths per year, according to the Drug Overdose Mortality Update published in July 2022 by the Division of Public Health at the Alaska Department of Health. In 2021, there were 253 overdose deaths, up from 146 in 2020.

There were 247 drug overdose deaths in Alaska in 2022, said Richard Raines, a research unit supervisor and analyst with the state.

The fact the program hires retired troopers is an important detail, because it means it isn’t taking candidates away from other law enforcement jobs.

“We are short on troopers across the state, and being able to use unique programs and funding mechanisms like we’re doing with the ferry system makes a lot of sense,” McDaniel said.

The state is down about 60 troopers, about 10% of the workforce, he said.

Goeden summarized the origin of the trooper-on-the-ferry program as “DOT talking to DPS,” which was an exchange between the commissioners who lead the agencies — Ryan Anderson at DOT and James Cockrell at Public Safety.

“DPS didn’t have spare troopers but if DPS would create a new position, and DOT would pay for it, they could get it done,” Goeden said. The officers may be on any ferry route and at this point make their own schedules.

News of the program was welcomed by licensed and unlicensed crew in the wheelhouse of the Columbia.

“There was a time when they were sending chief mates to do that,” said Dave Butler, a licensed second mate working on board the Columbia during Goeden’s first voyage. He and other wheelhouse crew joked about incidents from years earlier, most of them involving the bar.

Things are calmer now than in years past. The bar was shut down with budget cuts and COVID-19 but has since reopened on the Columbia with limited hours, serving beer and wine only. But the added security is welcome.

“As law enforcement, they know how to deal with the miscreant,” Butler said, adding the program doesn’t eliminate the responsibility of the captain and chief mate to manage incidents on board, and the paperwork that comes with it. “It does take some pressure off of crew.”

 

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