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Law Enforcement in Alaska, 1867-1998

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: January 26, 1999

    Next week, I'll be posting the Peace Officers Honor Roll for Alaska; because the history of law enforcement in Alaska is so complicated, however, I want to first put the Honor Roll into context. A proper history of law enforcement in Alaska seems to have not yet been attempted - although a couple of notorious events in Skagway and Nome have been published ad nauseam.

    On the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 1867, Alaska was turned over to the United States by two representatives of the Russian Czar. While the huge majority of Alaska's population at the time did not even know about this political transfer, it would eventually have an enormous impact on their lives. To the estimated 500 Russians and 300 Americans, most of whom lived at Sitka, there was no doubt that huge changes would take place very soon. The Russians generally expected the worst, while the Americans expected the best; neither side got what they expected from the new government.

    Under the Russians, rudimentary law enforcement, though unofficial, had been the responsibility of the Russian American Company managers. When the Americans arrived, it was thought that the presence at Sitka of Company "F" of the 9th Infantry and Company "H" of the 2nd Artillery, United States Army, would serve as temporary representatives of the government, until a conventional local government was established. However, Washington had obviously not considered the difficulties of administering an area that huge and remote, and if there had ever been plans for local government, they were very quickly filed away. Alaska was placed under the jurisdiction of the War Department, and the Army would serve as the only agents of law enforcement for the next ten years. In that duty, they were largely ineffective, for a wide variety of reasons ranging from poor recruits to the lack of enforceable laws in the territory. The only legislation that applied to Alaska was the Customs Act, which was amended on July 27, 1868 to include Alaska. Under this Act, a Customs Collector based at Sitka was responsible for enforcing customs, commerce and navigation regulations, including a ban on the importation of liquor and firearms (thus proving that Washington had little idea of what they were doing!).

    Alaska went through a period of economic stagnation following the purchase, and pleas for some form of local government went unheeded. In 1877, the last Army units were withdrawn from Alaska and sent to Idaho; jurisdiction over Alaska was then tranferred to the Treasury Department, and the territory was placed in the hands of a single Customs Collector. The citizens of Sitka resorted to conducting their own night patrols in an attempt to reduce crime, and many men sent their families back to the States. In desperation, prompted by a not-unfounded fear of attack by Indians under chief Katlean, the residents appealed to British authorities Revenue Cutterin Victoria, British Columbia for protection; the man-of-war Osprey was immediately dispatched, and remained at Sitka until the arrival of the U.S.S. Jamestown under Captain L.A.Beardslee. From that time until the passing of the Organic Act on May 17, 1884, justice was administered jointly by the Navy and the Treasury Department's Revenue Cutter Service.

    The Organic Act authorized a small civil government, including a judicial base which used the laws of Oregon. As prospectors spread further and further into the interior, however, they quickly passed out of the range of recognized authority, and miners' meetings were the primary source of a loose form of justice.

    On March 3, 1899, an Alaska Criminal Code was finally passed, and the following year, a civil code was enacted. The new laws were administered by United States Marshalls and their Deputy Marshalls. In 1904, President Roosevelt suggested that a mounted constabulary modeled on the North-West Mounted Police should be established to police Alaska, but the suggestion was never acted upon.

    In 1941, a new force, the Alaska Highway Patrol, was formed; their officers State Troopersworked primarily from highway stations, and shared law enforcement duties with a few federal Marshalls and Deputies. The Department of Territorial Police followed in 1953, and when Alaska joined the union on January 3, 1959, the Alaska State Police became the primary law enforcement agency for both state and federal laws. In 1967, the name was changed to the Alaska State Troopers, and a new uniform and patrol car paint scheme were adopted. As has been the case since about 1900, several city police departments have local jurisdiction in the State as well.

Further Reading:
  • Hulley, Clarence C., Alaska Past and Present (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1970)
  • Rychetnik, Joe, Bush Cop (Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood, 1991)