On the morning of May 16, 19-year-old Brian Nicolai allegedly broke into the public safety building in the remote Alaskan village of Kwethluk near the state’s southwest coast. According to authorities, Nicolai donned body armor and a helmet, staged several rifles, and pulled the fire alarm. When local village police officers responded to the alarm, Nicolai opened fire.
Village Police Officer Tiger Lee was the first to respond to the scene, but when Nicolai shot at him, Lee couldn’t fire back. That’s because none of the VPO’s in Kewthluk are authorized to carry firearms. Instead, an armed citizen named Casey Thompson was ultimately able to get Nicolai to drop his gun before anyone was hurt.
Officers explained that the reason Kwethluk VPOs don’t carry firearms is a lack of funding. [Deputy Chief David] Berezkin said that the required training to carry firearms takes two to three months in the lower 48. [Public Safety Administrative Chief Nicolai] Joseph said that the city can’t afford to be sued for improper use of force.
But Berezkin is not rushing to change the way things are in Kwethluk. He said that incidents involving guns, like the one on Saturday, are rare.
“We don’t deal with this every day, you know?” Berezkin said.
And while trooper reports show that resident Thompson was able to de-escalate the situation on Saturday with a gun, Berezkin said that people respond to a show of force in different ways, and sometimes a gun can escalate a confrontation.
“We don’t know what could happen. It all depends on the person,” Berezkin said.
Lee said that even if Thompson had not arrived with a gun, he would have been able to handle the situation on Saturday. He said that he’s dealt with similar calls where people have threatened to harm themselves. As he has done in those situations, Lee said, he would have asked Nicolai questions to calm him down.
With all due respect to Officer Lee, this wasn’t a call about someone threatening to harm themselves. This was an ambush on Village Police Officers. It’s possible that Lee would have been able to defuse the situation by asking Nicolai questions, but given the fact that Nicolai took at least one shot at him, if Lee had been hit, he might not have been in a position to engage in a constructive dialogue with the suspect.
I believe that ultimately the reason this situation didn’t escalate into bloodshed was the fact that there was an armed response to Nicolai. Thankfully, Casey Thompson didn’t have to fire his rifle to stop Nicolai’s attack, but I have no doubt that the presence of the rifle in Thompson’s hands was the difference-maker in defusing the situation. The Village Police Officers in Kewthluk may not start carrying guns as a result of the attack, but until they do, they’ll have to rely on armed citizens to protect them if need be.