Sgt. Cox celebrates 20 years at Skagway Police Department

Sgt. Kenneth Cox  patrols near border control on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2016.  Photo Suzanne Ashe.

The frigid, sideways wind cuts across the choppy waters as Skagway Police Sgt. Kenneth Cox looks down at the small boat harbor from a parking lot above. “It’s sunk alright,” he says looking at the partially visible edge of an aluminum skiff barely slicing the surface. A red plastic gas can bobs about 16 feet away from the front tip of the skiff.

Seeing that there is no immediate need for police action, Cox walks back to his Chevy Tahoe police cruiser. A call had come into the police station on State Street just a few minutes earlier about the sunken skiff.

Police in Skagway respond to a myriad of calls and the small patrol staff respond to them all. “We are animal control, parking enforcement, everything,” he said.

As Cox drives up the snow-frosted city streets he comes to a full halt at each stop sign. He waves at each pedestrian and gets a friendly wave, or at least a head nod, in return.

Cox has been patrolling Skagway, Liarsville, and Dyea for 20 years. The anniversary of his hire date, Nov. 6, was recognized with a gift from his colleagues. He received a gold pan. Not a metal pan to used to sift gold from a stream, this is a hold-spray painted bedpan that now hangs on a corkboard over his desk with pride.

At 44, Cox has collected up anecdotes for just about each block of the downtown area — from the home that an airplane drove off the airstrip and crashed into, to buildings that popped up seemingly overnight.

When Cox arrived in Skagway, the small department was headed up by Police Chief Dave Sexton. Officers shared after hours dispatch duties, jail and transport duties.

Cox, a life-long Sitka resident, had put himself through law enforcement training at University of Alaska Southeast, as well as several specialized training courses. He is also trained as an EMT. He had experience as a volunteer firefighter and as a member of the Civil Air Patrol when he arrived in Skagway. Although he doesn’t have a current pilot’s license, he was flying small planes before he graduated from high school, he said.

Seventeen years ago, Cox married Jill Thomas. Together they raised a son, Trevor, 19, and three daughters, Madison, 15, Kenadie, 9, and Kelsey, 8.

Cox recollects the changes to Skagway in the past two decades. But some things have remained the same as well.

“I remember the graffiti on the rocks, I remember when that [warehouse] wasn’t there,” he said pointing to various spots along the waterfront.

Cox was promoted to Sergeant in March 2005 under Chief Ray Leggett. Then Leggett arranged for Cox to complete three, three-week training sessions at the Texas A & M Mays Business School. The training at Mays focused on team development, Cox said.

In 2013, Cox attended a 10-week course at the FBI National Academy, in Quantico, Va. “The Chief, Ray, graduated from the same program and he knew it would be beneficial to me,” Cox said. “I went through three (three-week) modules. I took a class called statement analysis, which is when you take someone’s writing and you can look at it and determine if someone is leaving stuff out and being deceptive. I took a class in death investigations, and a really detailed class in forensics.”
Cox has also taken a lot of law classes, such as tenant-landlord law, which comes in handy when settling disputes in town.

Only in Skagway

One of the most popular calls Cox, and his officers respond to is keys locked in a vehicle. Why is this situation so popular in Skagway?

“[Drivers] won’t get spare keys,” Cox said. “Sometimes it’s a tourist, but every once in awhile you get a local person. I think it’s common; I’ve done it,” he admits as he drives toward City Hall.

Cox describes the scene. The Police Department was then housed in the city offices, where the history museum is now. “I had a habit of leaving my keys [in the vehicle]. It was a 1989 Isuzu Trooper. I locked the doors and the keys were sitting right on the seat,” he said.

“Luckily it was summer time. And it was sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. and nobody was out. I had the wind cracked open to the chief’s office. So I opened the window and crawled in through the window and got the spare key,” he said.

The Dyea flash flood

As the Tahoe bumps along the ice and gravel surface of Dyea Road, Cox recalls one of the craziest shifts he has ever worked. It was 15-hour shift that turned into more than 20 hours of chaos. It started on July 23, 2002.

“In the middle of the night, after midnight sometime before 3 a.m., I get a call that there’s a guy at Moe’s with a knife and scissors, threatening one of the bartenders. And they had all ganged up on him. The chief came out, I think we were the only [law enforcement officers] in town,” he said.

“So, now I’ve got this felony assault case. I’m doing the report. I’m doing the criminal complaint and getting ready to do a felony first reading in the morning. So, it’s going to be a long night,” he said, “About 6 a.m. we get this 911 call and the dispatcher at the time was a little ‘off.’ And I heard him say “Well, what do you want me to do about it?’ and then he hangs up,” Cox said.

As it was, the caller had just alerted police of a flash flood in Dyea. A 700-foot moraine had collapsed above West Creek glacial lake causing a cataclysmic chain of events that led to the emergency evacuation of the area.

“I gave [the dispatcher] a list of names: ‘You call the mayor, you call the fire department, you are probably going to need a helicopter to check out what’s going on, because it’s not raining out. Why is there a flash flood going on in the middle of Dyea when it’s a perfectly nice out. None of this should be happening.”

Then dispatch was flooded with 911 calls from residents of Dyea needing answers and assistance. That was about a 20-hour day, Cox said.

About a week later, while Cox was working on the paperwork from the Dyea flash flood, he decided to go home for lunch. “I come out of my house and I see this blue Mazda Miata zooming down State Street. So, I go chase this Mazda Miata and he pulls over and goes walking into Princess, this little office at First Street and Broadway, just behind the police department,” Cox said. “I get this kid who is driving around in his aunt’s Mazda Miata. I don’t know if he had permission or not, but he’s 19 years old, and he’s intoxicated.” Cox said adding that he placed the driver under arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

“I go back out after I release him and I go out of the police department and we are by the car. I tell him ‘don’t drive.’” Cox said.

A few minutes later, Cox was standing in front of the post office telling the Sergeant at the time, the story about the DUI arrest. Then the same blue Mazda Miata comes around the corner. Both Cox and the Sergeant get in their vehicles and corner the Miata. It was the passenger who was now driving the car.”

Cox makes a second DUI arrest from the same car.

“I’m working on the report. And we get another call, a domestic dispute. Luckily it wasn’t an arrest. But then the Sergeant said go ahead and kick them [the two minors charged with DUI] loose. By this time it was 6 a.m., and I had been working since noon the previous day.”

Just then an old building on Spring Street caught fire. “So all of us were out there doing traffic, because it’s a busy tourist season. We’ve got hoses going across Broadway Street.”

Finally at about 9 a.m. the fire was under control and Cox went back to police headquarters. “The magistrate from New Mexico [where one of the DUI suspects was from], called and said he had had two previous DUI’s. So now this is a felony DUI, but he had been released. I call down to the airport and he’s getting on one of the airlines, and he was gone.”

“It was about noon by the time I left the station,” Cox said.

As Cox finishes a last sweep around the waterfront and parks the Tahoe in front of the station house. He doesn’t leave any parting words of wisdom, only that he will be out on patrol again keeping the citizens of Skagway safe for years to come.