Alaska is a place of great and vast beauty. But as anyone who has even visited the state will be able to attest to, that beauty must be respected if not feared. The wilds of its vast plains and unrelenting mountains can be treacherous and deadly, and that’s just the terrain. The creatures who live there only add to its dangerousness and mystery.
And so it comes as no surprise that the people who call this place home have to be just as unrelenting. In fact, when you picture an Alaskan resident, I bet you imagine the toughest of mountain men, complete with untamed beard, ax in hand, and a gun on his hip. And you wouldn’t be the only one to imagine such.
Neither would you be far from wrong, at least in some aspects. The people here know that between the often-frigid weather, the miles and miles in between towns with a solid stock of supplies, and the creatures of the wild, there is much to be on alert and to be prepared for. And this is precisely why nearly 62% percent of all residents of the state own at least one firearm, the highest of any US state.
Now picture Alaska’s law enforcement.
The image in your mind just got even rougher, didn’t it? These brave men and women not only face the daily challenges of the landscape they have chosen to call home but also have to endure the brunt of humankind’s lawlessness. They are people who have to be prepared for just about any type of call, whether it’s a dangerous animal on the prowl or an unruly citizen bent on revenge.
So you might be surprised to learn that not all police officers in the great frozen north are equipped with weapons for such preparedness.
In fact, in the remote western village of Kwethluk, Alaska, a place with less than a thousand residents, the local police department is entirely unarmed.
As you can imagine in a town this small, crime isn’t a huge problem. Sure, there are your occasional drunken squabbles, fistfights, and even a theft or two. But things like murder and mass shootings are rare indeed, causing some to question the need for firearms.
But as a recent man just proved, they do happen, forcing citizens to be the hero.
On May 23, 19-year-old Brian Nicolai broke into the local public safety building “dressed for combat. He staged rifles inside and activated the fire alarm system. When village police officers responded, the officers say that Nicolai shot at them,” according to Alaska Public Media and the state troopers report.
It could have been the scene of mass bloodshed and chaos, considering not a single police officer had any sort of weapon to combat the shooter and his several rifles.
Thankfully, in large part due to Nicolai’s inexperience with firearms, no one was injured. According to the police reports, village Police Officer Tiger Lee was among some of the first to respond to the scene and try to engage Nicolai. But the shooter was resolved and quickly produced a rifle, trying to shoot at Lee, who had to hide behind a shipping container.
Nicolai, in his inexperience, didn’t have the weapon loaded, though. Lee said, “I believe he wasn’t aware that the rifle was empty, and I could have been shot.”
Eventually, though, Nicolai was also able to load and fire the weapon, shooting at both Lee and backup officers just arriving.
But when the dust settled and Nicolai finally surrendered, giving up his weapons, it was an armed citizen, not a police officer who had gotten him to do so.
Enter Casey Thompson…
According to Alaska Public Radio, “Thompson, armed with a rifle, was able to get the shooter to drop his weapon…”
In the wake of the incident, the village police have now begun to consider a change in their gun policy. Obviously, in a case like this, an officer with a firearm would have definitely come in handy. And as Deputy Chief David Berezkin said, “Sometimes that show of force helps.”
However, only a few lines later, he was back to saying, “We don’t deal with this every day, you know?” implying that guns weren’t really needed.
For Officer Lee, the choice is obvious, “If we had access to firearms, we’d be able to handle more of these scenarios on our own.” And in a place so secluded, that could make all the difference.
This time they were lucky. Next time might not go as smoothly.