Criminal Justice

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Alaska Native leaders called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr for federal aid and greater authority for tribes to prosecute certain crimes, saying Wednesday that a dangerous lack of law enforcement is growing worse in the state’s most remote communities.

Barr, sitting beside U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, heard that the state and federal governments have failed to provide the resources needed to combat a crisis of rural sexual assault, violence and drug use. Sullivan began the meeting by referencing a recent Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica investigation that found that at least 70 Alaska communities—towns and villages large enough for schools and post offices—had no local police of any kind at some point this year.

In some hub communities that do have police, survivors of sexual assault say rapists go unpunished. Mothers of Alaska Native women who were found dead under suspicious circumstances say cases go unsolved.

On Wednesday, speaker after speaker, representing more than 200 Alaska tribes, described how crime in rural areas has been raising alarms and how the number of state-funded village public safety officers is at or near an all-time low.

The attorney general, in Alaska for four days to learn more about the problems, said he would work to provide greater security in rural areas through the Department of Justice, which he leads.

“It’s the responsibility of the attorney general to serve all the people of the United States, every state, every community,” said Barr, who sat at a long table at a tribal health facility, listening to 13 Native leaders from every region. “It’s critical our legal system work for every American and no one be left out of that.”

Native leaders told Barr how a handful of local village safety officers are employed in regions the size of large states. They described long waits for Alaska state troopers to arrive from hub communities, especially when storms ground planes.

Leonard Wallner, a coordinator of the village safety officer program for the Chugach region, described one village in south-central Alaska that was in a lockdown status, with villagers gripped in fear after a 2017 homicide. As people hid inside, the suspect walked the streets, he said.

“Troopers did arrive, 23 hours later,” Wallner said. “That is unforgivable, but not at all uncommon.”

Vivian Korthuis, chief executive of the Association of Village Council Presidents, providing social services in southwest Alaska, described a chronic shortage of officers.

“You said six peace officers in how many villages?” Barr asked, leaning into the table.

“Forty-eight,” she said.

The number of VPSOs, police who are trained, certified and funded by the state, has dwindled from more than 100 officers in 2012 to 42 this year. Ralph Andersen, of the Bristol Bay Native Association, said more VPSOs are in danger of quitting because of uncertainty over the future of the program.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed cutting $3 million from the VPSO program budget this year because of job vacancies, although legislators rejected the cut.

Andersen said three VPSOs serve 31 communities in his southwest Alaska region that’s the size of Ohio.

Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, drew chuckles from Barr when he said the meeting was so important he’d canceled his post-winter trip to Hawaii to be there.

“No pressure [on me],” Barr said, laughing.

Peterson said there are people in his region who feel like the state is more concerned with investigating hunting violations than homicides.

“I’ve heard elders that I love and respect say they feel that a Tlingit means less to the state of Alaska than a moose,” he said, describing the killing of a 19-year-old woman in one village where, he said, it took nearly a day for investigators to arrive.

As a young man, Peterson said he was held at gunpoint in a southeast Alaska village by someone high on methamphetamine. “It took troopers six hours to get there,” he said.

During his visit, Barr will visit Galena, in the Interior, and Napaskiak and Bethel, in Ssuthwest Alaska. He’s also meeting with officials in Anchorage.

Regional leaders asked for more federal funding—including money to build jail cells and police officer housing, and for refinement of programs that provide grant funding for hiring tribal police. The Department of Justice awarded $3.4 million to 13 Alaska tribes and regional organizations to hire and support police officers over the past three years, but recruitment is a hurdle at all levels of state law enforcement.

Many village and tribal leaders said they are working to establish tribal courts. Regional leaders told Barr that Alaska’s tribes need more power for these local courts to work, a step requiring congressional approval. Other speakers described a lack of rural prosecutors and prisoner reentry programs to help prevent recidivism.

Heather Dingman, with the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., told the attorney general there is no full-time state prosecutor in the North Slope region, so some cases aren’t being pursued. The lack of consequences for perpetrators means some women in villages must return to their abusers, just to ensure children have a roof over their heads, she said.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Victor Joseph, the Tanana Chiefs Conference chairman, said a provision in the Violence Against Women Act, as passed by the House, is a good start: It would create a pilot project that would allow up to five villages to enforce criminal jurisdiction over domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

“I stand here as an Alaska Native man in front of Alaska Native women, our children, our grandchildren, to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Joseph said. “We can’t rely on the state of Alaska to protect us. We need something here [so] that we can stand up for ourselves and help our own.”

Andy Teuber, chairman of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, called for a statewide rural justice system that relies on tribal groups to provide police, court and victim’s services. That’s how it’s done now with regional tribal health care systems in Alaska.

Stepped-up law enforcement in villages could help stop drugs before they hit the ground in villages, he said, adding, “Opioids are killing our people.”

Barr called for continued communication with the Native groups and promised a follow-up meeting, which he said would force the Department of Justice to “get our act together” and respond to the ideas he’d heard.

Barr said he wants to make sure “one-size-fits-all federal policies” are not hurting Alaska Native communities, where tribes are governed by unique federal laws.

Dunleavy said he welcomed the attorney general’s visit, calling it a potential springboard for finding ways to improve public safety across the state. He planned to meet with Barr to discuss a variety of crime-related topics that have plagued the state for generations.

“Alaskans have a proud history of discussing things unfiltered with their officials, and I think that’s a good thing,” Dunleavy said.

Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price told the Anchorage Daily News this month that the state and regional organizations that oversee VPSOs are entering new agreements that will reduce training requirements for new recruits—a change that is aimed at making the jobs more appealing to rural applicants who might not want to leave their hometowns during hunting or fishing seasons.

This article was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for the Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.