KODIAK — Sometimes, Kodiak police officers are glad when the suspect gets away.
Scaring bears away from homes and businesses is a normal task for Kodiak Police Department officers, and is a large part of the job in the fall.
This year, the bears were quiet in the fall but became active in December, digging through trash bins and prowling backyards.
Most bear sightings are called in during the late evening or early morning when it’s dark and the empty streets are inviting to bears.
KPD responds first to bear reports within city limits, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is on call if additional help is needed. Outside city limits, Alaska State Troopers are the first responders.
Sgt. Michael Barnett, now on the night shift, has been driving bears out of the city of Kodiak for a decade and said bear duty is part of what keeps the job interesting.
“It never gets stale,” he said.
The department’s No. 1 goal is to avoid killing the bear. Kodiak is known for its bears, and thousands of tourists visit the archipelago annually to get a glimpse of one or take home a hunting trophy.
Bears startle easily, but a police car’s lights and sirens aren’t always enough.
Barnett said KPD has a handful of tools to encourage bears to move along, but even a stubborn animal can be easier to deal with than a person.
“I have always had less problems dealing with animals because they don’t talk,” he said. “Everything they do is understandable to me. They’re hungry, searching for food. It’s all predictable.”
When the call comes
KPD treats a bear report the same way it treats any call for service. The first step is for a patrol officer to go to the scene and evaluate the situation.
“A nuisance bear is treated the same way as a barking dog or a broke-into house,” Barnett said. “We show up and evaluate. The calls range from mere sightings to reports of damage, to actual fear on the part of someone walking. They’re all different and all treated the same.”
When it comes to using force, officers use the same procedure for difficult bears as difficult people.
“You start like our use of force for dealing with people,” Barnett said. “If an officer presence is enough to handle the situation, then that’s all that is used. If it requires an escalation and the use of force, that’s what we do.”
More often than not, just showing up to the scene is enough to scare the bear away. Some of the bears that frequent the city have memorized the sound of Kodiak’s police cars and bolt before the vehicle arrives, Barnett said.
“Usually by the time we get there they’ve scooted,” he said. “If they’re there, we escalate appropriately.”
The first escalation for officers is using noise and lights, like sirens, red and blue flashing lights, strobe lights and high beams — all in the hopes of getting the bear uncomfortable and willing to leave.
When Barnett is on the night shift with police dog Max, he will roll down his vehicle’s rear window to let Max to bark at the bear for additional noise. Facing a 1,600-pound bear, Max stays in the car.
When lights and sirens fail, officers turn to their PepperBall gun, ShellCrackers, rubber buckshot and a shotgun. Each KPD patrol vehicle is equipped with all of the weapons, and Barnett has been on the job long enough to learn which of Kodiak’s resident bears respond best to a particular weapon.
“Any of these could be used next depending on what we’re carrying and who’s responding,” Barnett said. “The PepperBall and the shotgun give us distance.”
All of the products KPD uses can be purchased online by private citizens, but Barnett recommends people call KPD instead of buying one.
The PepperBall gun is advertised as a less-lethal weapon for the military, government, law enforcement, United States Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, corrections departments and private security.
“We can actually use all this against people, but it’s mostly for riot patrol,” Barnett said.
The PepperBall gun looks like a paintball gun, but instead of shooting balls filled with paint, it shoots balls filled with concentrated hot pepper powder. The pepper balls break on contact, effectively pepper spraying the bear at a safe distance.
“There’s typically a PepperBall launching system in each of the patrol vehicles out there,” Barnett said.
ShellCrackers are standardized cracker rounds fired from a shotgun. When the shell is fired, it lights a timed fuse. The fuse ignites a pyrotechnic charge, creating a flash and a loud noise.
“It’s basically like a seal bomb you can launch,” Barnett said. “I’ve shot anywhere from 20 to 100 yards. They’ll go quite a ways.”
Rubber buckshot rounds are fired from a shotgun as well. Instead of lead buckshot, each shell contains 15 rubber pellets.
“The rubber buck shots are a pretty good deterrent,” Barnett said.
The effectiveness of the weapons depends on the bear. For most bears, a patrol car’s lights and siren are enough, but the ones familiar with the noise may need rubber buckshot or pepper balls.
“I would say they get immune to the noise and lights pretty quickly, especially if they’ve been around us a lot,” Barnett said. “Pain is probably a good deterrent . it (the PepperBall gun) startles them, but doesn’t hurt them because they have such thick hides. If you can get a cloud of that OC (hot pepper chemical) around them, they don’t like it.”
Barnett emphasized that all of the deterrent tools are used with lethal cover: While one officer is firing a pepper ball another officer is covering him with a loaded firearm.
“When we have someone out there with one of these, we also have someone out with a real rifle,” he said.
Lethal force is the department’s last option and is avoided if possible. Barnett said he has only seen the option used twice in his 10 years of working for the department: this spring, when a bear roamed near Kodiak Middle School, and at the airport a few years ago.
“We try to avoid (lethal) if at all possible,” Barnett said. “For the large part, any lethal use of force, we like to pass to Larry Van Daele (with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game).”
Anytime lethal force is suggested, the department plans the situation in advance and in the daylight so there are enough people to help.
Keeping bears away
The easiest way to prevent bears from hanging around a home or yard is to remove possible outdoor food sources like scraps in the trash, bird feeders, pet food, or deer in the shed.
“We’re getting more calls than usual now because the natural food sources are depleting,” Barnett said. “The berries are gone, the fish are gone, now we’re the easy source. You remove that source, you remove the problem.”
To report bear sightings in city limits, call the Kodiak Police Department at 486-8000.