Four times in the past 10 months, Alaska State Troopers have opened fire to defend themselves or protect others from residents of the Matanuska-Valley. The shootings have left three dead and one wounded.
In all cases, the dead and injured were armed, and the trooper shootings appear justified. But so many deaths in a community of only 100,000 people raises questions about just how violent “The Valley,” as most Alaskans refer to the sprawling Matanuska-Susitna Borough, has become.
The number of deaths appear to be occurring at a rate more than an order of magnitude greater than the number of people annually shot by police nationwide, although comparisons are difficult because there are no official national statistics on the number of Americans shot and killed by law enforcement officers in a given year.
FBI Director James Comey believes there should be. He has been pushing police departments to begin keeping statistics on officer-involved shootings in hopes of defusing the idea there is some sort of national epidemic of police shootings.
In the absence of a formal national database, the Washington Post in 2015 began an effort to comb newspapers across the country to try to determine a body count. The Post eventually concluded that law enforcement officers shoot and kill about 1,000 people per year in the U.S.
That is a tiny number in a country of nearly 319 million people. It translates to a death rate of about 0.3 per 100,000.
The number of people shot and killed by troopers in The Valley in the past 10 months is 10 times higher.
Two of the dead were armed with firearms, one with a knife. Two of the shootings, including one fatal, involved trooper canines that were fired upon.
In the latest case, troopers reported that 36-year-old Justin Smith was shot and killed in the early morning hours of Sunday after leading a motor-vehicle chase that ended only when his Subaru Legacy ran over spike strips deployed on the George Parks Highway.
With the tires flat, he fled.
“The driver of the Subaru exited the vehicle, ignored commands from AST and attempted to flee,” according to a trooper dispatch. “An AST K-9 was deployed. The driver turned and fired a handgun. The AST K-9 was shot. AST returned fire, striking the suspect.”
Smith was taken to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center where he died. The K-9, which has not been identified by name because to do so would also identify the officer involved in the shooting, also died.
Troopers spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The shooting deaths could well be a statistical anomaly, a simple run of bad luck on the part of troopers compounded with bad judgment on the part of those shot.
Unless, of course, the dead wanted to get shot.
Strange form of suicide
News reports of the first of the three Valley deaths hinted at this tragic phenomenon. After the June shooting of 33-year-old Joshua Smith (no apparent relation to Justin Smith) by troopers, KTUU-TV quoted witnesses to his death saying “he just started screaming ‘kill me.'”
The confrontation between Smith and troopers began after an argument between the man and his wife or girlfriend outside a Wasilla home on the evening of June 2, 2016, according to a trooper report.
Law enforcement officers were called. Three troopers showed up. Neighbors said their appearance further angered Smith.
“More police came out and like were around him, and then he just got all, like, angry, and that’s when he pulled out his knife,” neighbor Kaitlyn Shepherd told KTUU. “At first he had it to his throat and he turned … and started running towards the cops and they started shooting at him.”
Troopers later revealed two of the officers had shot Smith while a third had tried to stun him with a taser.
Trooper K-9 killed
Three months after the Smith shooting, Palmer Police tried to stop 25-year-old Almando Abarca near that city for a traffic violation. Abarca took off. Police gave chase and later called for assistance from troopers.
The chase spend west from Palmer toward the intersection of the Glen and Parks Highways south of Wasilla. There, according to a trooper dispatch, “the suspect vehicle drove a couple hundred yards down (a) driveway, and the driver exited and ran into the woods. ”
A Palmer police officer, a trooper, and a trooper K-9 pursued into a dark, early morning woods where Abarca allegedly opened fire, “striking the AST K-9,” troopers reported. “Both officers fired back striking Almando Abarca once in the shoulder. Abarca was transported to a hospital with a non-life threatening injury. The AST K-9 was transported to a local veterinarian in critical condition.”
The dog named Helo eventually died. Abarca is awaiting trail on felony assault and reckless driving charges. One of the troopers involved in the Abarca shooting was later identified as Christopher Havens.
A five-year member of the trooper force, he was also one of the troopers involved in the June shooting of Smith.
Second human fatality
The next trooper-involved shooting didn’t come until February when 35-year-old Jean R. Valescot called troopers from his home at Big Lake north of Wasilla.
In a 3:30 p.m. call to 911 on Feb. 16, a trooper dispatch said, Valescot “made threatening statements that he was going to kill anyone who comes to his house, and he had a gun. A woman was heard on the 911 call yelling that she needed help, and that there was a 2- to 3-year-old child in the house.”
Troopers rushed to the scene and called up their Special Emergency Reaction Team. Negotiations began and continued through the afternoon and into the night.
Shortly after midnight, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reported, Valescot came to the front door of the Big Lake home with his son and two weapons – a handgun in one hand and a shotgun in the other.
What happened next is not fully clear, but troopers say that Valescot placed the child in “imminent danger” and an order was given to shoot. He was at that point shot by a member of the SERT team. Efforts were made to save him, according to troopers, but he died at the scene.
Another dog shot
Only about a month after that shooting, troopers again found themselves in a late night-early morning car chase with an armed driver. About 45 minutes after the chase began, they managed to disable Joshua Smith’s car.
He responded by trying to run away into the 3 a.m. darkness.
“Troopers sent a dog after him,” Alaska Public Media reported. “‘The driver ended up turning around and firing off a handgun that actually shot and killed our dog,’ (Trooper spokeswoman Megan) Peters said. ‘The troopers then returned fire, and the suspect was injured.'”
He later died.
The three deaths appear to have little in common. Two of the dead appear to have instigated the incidents that led to their deaths. Two others cases involved men with criminal histories who tried to flee traffic stops and then took to the woods when their cars were stopped.
In those cases, K-9 units were called to help apprehend the suspects, The suspects then shot the dogs and the troopers shot the suspects.
The four deaths in 10 months as a result of confrontations with the state’s main law enforcement agency might be an odd circumstance never to be repeated. Or it might say something about the behavior of Alaskans these days, and notably those living in the valley.
Whatever the case, something is out of whack. In most of the country, officer-involved shootings are rare. In the valley, they are becoming all to common.