Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In Southeast Alaska, Tlingit villagers say it seems like the state places more value on the life of a moose than the safety of human beings.

In early April the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida held a forum on House Bill 123, which would provide state recognition to federally recognized tribes. The subject of public safety response times compared to wildlife protection came up.

“In our villages, we often don't have law enforcement, right? When something happens to our people, [when] something horrible happens, we don't have the law enforcement that other communities have,” said First Alaskans Institute CEO and President La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow, who is Haida and Tlingit.

“But you know what we do have? As soon as someone takes a moose out of season, we have all the troopers, the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service, everybody shows up. No matter time of day, no matter the weather, they're able to get there within an hour or two,” she said.

“That's disparity. That's injustice,” Medicine Crow said. “And tribal recognition will help us to move away from that.”

Travel to remote Alaska communities may require snow machines, helicopters, planes or boats, equipment troopers might not have readily available. And bad weather can intervene.

When two police officers were shot in Hoonah in 2010, it took special emergency reaction teams 8 hours to arrive to assist the one remaining officer. The killer wasn’t arrested until 11 hours after the shootings. And that was with assistance from a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, say news reports.

Medicine Crow is originally from the Tlingit village of Kake, a Southeast Alaska island community scarred by the memory of a 2014 murder that left the body of a 13-year-old girl lying overnight in a church entryway until troopers could arrive to gather evidence.

On April 22, the State Affairs Committee was considering the nominee for commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Jim Cockrell. Committee chairman Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said he sees “simmering frustration” in Kake, which is in his district.

“There have been very tragic and sort of gratuitous violent murders [in Kake] that broke the hearts of a lot of people over the last six, seven years,” he said.

Kreiss-Tomkins said in Kake there’s “a frustration of ‘we can't get support after there's been a murder in the community.’' But he’s been told that when someone makes an innocent mistake or has a technical violation, it’s as if a wildlife trooper was lying in wait, Kreiss-Tomkins said. “And the feeling is like, ‘Oh my gosh, this doesn't feel like the sort of appropriate allocation of resources.’”

“Crimes against people are at a higher degree than wildlife or fish any day,” nominee Cockrell said. Wildlife troopers are expected to investigate criminal cases when in the area or the nearest. “A lot of times the wildlife troopers have the vessels, the airplanes to respond…” he said.

Cockrell said the state has a “billions-of-dollars guiding and fishing industry,” and, in Southeast Alaska, wildlife troopers probably outnumber Alaska state troopers.

“There's a line that if we're not careful, we'll certainly get disgruntled folks because we're not providing the protection needed for our wildlife resources. The department of fish and game, the people on the board of fish and the board of game let us know that when we're neglecting our wildlife,” Cockrell said.

He said if confirmed as the public safety commissioner, he plans to better utilize resources so wildlife troopers can more easily cross to the state troopers’ side of operations to help out.

This isn’t the first time the state has been criticized over the lack of law enforcement in rural, predominantly Native, communities.

(Related: Alaska legislators consider state recognition of tribes)

The national Indian Law and Order Commission in 2013 made Alaska the subject of an entire chapter in its six-chapter report. “Problems in Alaska are so severe, and the number of Alaska Native communities affected so large ... that they beg to be addressed,” the report stated.

The state’s strongly centralized law enforcement and justice systems “… do not serve local and Native communities adequately, if at all,” the report said.

“The commission believes tribes are best positioned to effectively arrest, prosecute and punish, and should have the authority to do so.” And that could be done through voluntary agreements, the report stated.

Alaska is in the bottom ten states on the police-to-population spectrum. And Alaska troopers lose time traveling to communities spread over an area greater than Texas, California, and Montana combined.

Plus, Propublica and the Anchorage Daily News report a disproportionate number of troopers serve in larger predominantly white communities that have voted not to fund a local police force.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr in 2019 declared the lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska a federal emergency. Some $60 million in federal funding (in several chunks) was put toward the problem.

After years of state funding for law enforcement getting cut, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and legislators increased the state trooper force by 15 positions in 2019. 

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