KETCHIKAN — Uniformed and armed officers can no longer ride for free on state ferries after the Alaska Highway Marine System stopped accepting standby ticket applications from law enforcement Sept. 30.
Previously, Alaska State Troopers and U.S. Forest Service officers could ride the ferries for no cost as long as they wore their uniforms during the voyage, the Ketchikan Daily News reported.
The intent behind the program was that the presence of a uniformed officer would offer a restraining influence on unruly passengers. The officer, who was traveling on his own time, could detain someone who broke the law until reaching a port.
Supporters of the program said a drill last week on how to handle an active shooter aboard the ferry Matanuska in Ketchikan shows the benefit having an officer on board a ship.
Ketchikan Deputy Police Chief Josh Dossett said a mass shooting at sea exposes a weakness in law enforcement’s ability to respond, and by the time officers were flown hundreds of miles to a ferry, the shooter could be “out of bodies or out of bullets.”
Having an armed officer on board could help mitigate that situation.
The decision to end the program was partially financial, said Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow.
Alaska Marine Highway System officials have been pressured from state lawmakers and some members of the general public to “to remove free-pass ridership as much as possible,” Woodrow said.
Even though officers rode only stand-by, there was still the possibility they could displace a paying passenger by reserving a spot online.
He also said the transportation department bore some liability by having armed officers on board.
“If they were to use deadly force on a passenger, (the AMHS) could be found liable for that,” Woodrow said. “In this day and age, you have to consider those risks.”
Woodrow said there’s actually very little crime aboard ferries.
“You’re on a ship, you can’t get anywhere so it’s pretty hard to get away with things,” he said.