KIANA, ALASKA — Village Police Officer Annie Reed heard her VHF radio crackle to life in the spring of 2018 with the familiar voice of an elder. I need help at my house, the woman said.
Reed, who doesn’t wear a uniform because everyone in this Arctic Circle village of 421 can spot her ambling gait and bell of salt-and-pepper hair at a distance, steered her four-wheeler across town. There had been a home invasion, she learned. One of the local sex offenders, who outnumber Reed 7-to-1, had pried open a window and crawled inside, she said. The man then tore the clothes from the elder’s daughter, who had been sleeping, gripped her throat and raped her, according to the charges filed against him in state court.
Reed, a 49-year-old grandmother, was the only cop in the village. She carried no gun and, after five years on the job, had received a total of three weeks of law enforcement training. She had no backup. Even when the fitful weather allows, the Alaska State Troopers, the statewide police force that travels to villages to make felony arrests, are a half-hour flight away.
It’s moments like these when Reed thinks about quitting. If she does, Kiana could become the latest Alaska village asked to survive with no local police protection of any kind.
An investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica has found one in three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement. No state troopers to stop an active shooter, no village police officers to break up family fights, not even untrained city or tribal cops to patrol the streets. Almost all of the communities are primarily Alaska Native.
Seventy of these unprotected villages are large enough to have both a school and a post office. Many are in regions with some of the highest rates of poverty, sexual assault and suicide in the United States. Most can be reached only by plane, boat, all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile. That means, unlike most anywhere else in the United States, emergency help is hours or even days away.
When a village police officer helps in a sex crime investigation by documenting evidence, securing the crime scene and conducting interviews, the case is more likely to be prosecuted, the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center concluded in 2018. Yet communities with no first responders of any kind can be found along the salmon-filled rivers of Western Alaska, the pancake tundra of the northwest Arctic and the icy rainforests in the southeast panhandle.
The state recognizes that most villages can’t afford their own police force and has a special class of law enforcement, called village public safety officers, to help. But it’s not working. In the 60 years since Alaska became a state, some Alaska Native leaders say, a string of governors and Legislatures have failed to protect indigenous communities by creating an unconstitutional, two-tiered criminal justice system that leaves villagers unprotected compared with their mostly white counterparts in the cities and suburbs.
ProPublica and the Daily News asked more than 560 traditional councils, tribal corporations and city governments representing 233 communities if they employ peace officers of any sort. It is the most comprehensive investigation of its kind in Alaska.
Here is what we learned:
- Tribal and city leaders in several villages said they lack jail space and police stations. At least five villages reported housing shortages that prevent them from providing potential police hires with a place to live, a practical necessity in some regions for obtaining state-funded VPSOs. In other villages, burnout and low pay, with some village police earning as little as $10 an hour, lead to constant turnover among law enforcement.
- In villages that do have police, more than 20 have hired officers with criminal records that violate state standards for village police officers over the past two years. They say that’s better than no police at all. Our review identified at least two registered sex offenders working this year as Alaska policemen.
- Alaska communities that have no cops and cannot be reached by road have nearly four times as many sex offenders, per capita, than the national average.
The lack of local police and public safety infrastructure routinely leaves residents to fend for themselves. The mayor of the Yukon River village of Russian Mission said that within the past couple years, residents duct-taped a man who had been firing a gun within the village and waited for troopers to arrive. In nearby Marshall, villagers locked their doors last year until a man who was threatening to shoot people had fallen asleep, then grabbed him and tied him up. In Kivalina, a February burglary closed the post office for a week because the village had no police officer to investigate. Elsewhere, tribes mete out banishment for serious crimes from meth dealing to arson.
“There’s no one you can call and go, ‘Oh hey, my neighbor is going crazy right now,’” said Kristen George, tribal administrator for the Bristol Bay town of Clark’s Point, which balloons from 55 people to several hundred during the commercial fishing season.
If someone started shooting, George said, “they could probably wipe us out before troopers came.”
Many of the unprotected villages are in western Alaska, where sex crime rates are double the statewide average. (Alaska’s statewide rate, in turn, is nearly three times the U.S. average.) Rape survivors, as in the Kiana home invasion case, are told not to shower and must fly to hub cities or even hundreds of miles to Anchorage to undergo a sexual assault examination.
The problem is getting worse. Our investigation found the number of police provided through the state Village Public Safety Officer Program is at or near an all-time low; the few who remain are often unhappy and overextended.
When the lone VPSO in the northwest Arctic village of Ambler investigated a domestic violence call in April, for example, he said he was attacked by two people in the home who each grabbed one of his arms. In a subsequent report, he described it as one of the scariest moments of his life as he struggled to break free and grab a can of pepper spray.
“I was unable to get any assistance as I am the only law enforcement officer in this village within about a 100 square mile radius,” he wrote.
Rather than raise pay or boost recruitment, Gov. Mike Dunleavy this year proposed a state budget that would cut $3 million in funding for vacant village-based police officer jobs. The reductions are a small part of a proposed $1.8 billion reduction in state spending as cash-strapped Alaska struggles to live within its means while avoiding an income tax and continuing to pay annual Permanent Fund dividend checks to all eligible residents.
Dunleavy, a Republican, campaigned on promoting public safety, but he also promised Alaskans that they wouldn’t have to give up the annual oil wealth checks, and that those checks might increase. Under his proposed budget, each Alaskan would receive a more than $4,000 payment in October, the largest ever. (State lawmakers are working on a competing spending plan with fewer cuts, which would maintain VPSO funding at current levels and provide potentially smaller dividends.) Dunleavy has said growth in state spending is the problem, not annual checks to residents.
Whether each Alaskan also receives basic public safety protection — the ability to dial 911 and have a police officer or trooper show up at the door — depends largely on whether they live in cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, or off the road system.
Martha Whitman-Kassock, who oversees self-governance programs for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, grew up in rural Alaska and said the state appears to have no strategy for adding cops in villages.
“Public safety infrastructure and service in our region is a crisis,” she said.
(Republished from propublica.org)