Indian Country Today
Fear flooded the outskirts of Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada, home of Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Women slept with baseball bats by their beds. Elders didn't want to go walking. Nobody felt safe going outside.
In 2016, a string of murders left community members badly shaken, said a local Southern Tutchone leader.
Two Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were stationed nearby, but previous allegations of Indigenous mistreatment by authorities had put strain on the relationship. Heightening their distrust of outsiders, a report indicated much of the crime increase was committed by people who weren’t from their community.
Kwanlin Dün had a solution: Create a locally run safety initiative that focused on the specific needs of their Indigenous people. In 2017, their Community Safety Officer program began.
Separate from the police, community safety officers help peacefully resolve conflicts. They don’t carry firearms, and they can’t charge people with crimes.
“The safety officers are designed to be the eyes and ears of this community, and people trust them,” said Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill. “They don’t enforce the law. They are designed to deescalate situations.”
As protests against police brutality continue throughout the United States, more people are starting to examine and question traditional policing methods. Reform ideas range from increasing training surrounding racial biases, to outlawing certain weapons and restraint tactics, to reallocating police funds towards other services, such as mental health professionals or social workers.
People attempting to imagine what these reforms might look like in reality don’t have to search far. In certain Alaska Native and Canadian Indigenous communities, alternative safety systems already exist.
One example is the Kwanlin Dün Community Safety Officer initiative in Canada, which now counts four officers as part of its program.
A few hundred miles away, across the border in Alaska, there is a similar statewide Village Public Safety Officer program with the State of Alaska Office of Public Safety.
Alaska's alternative policing program was founded in 1979 as a way to provide safety measures throughout the state's more than 200 remote, primarily Indigenous villages. Before its creation, most villages didn’t have residential law enforcement officers, EMT services or firefighters. Many still don’t today — but around 40 communities now have a village public safety officer presence.
Their motto, “First Responders in the Last Frontier,” summarizes the program’s intended goal: to act as jack-of-all-trades safety officials in a region with extreme geographical, environmental and physical demands. For villages that aren’t connected to roadways, outside help can take hours to arrive. The addition of a single village safety officer can mean the difference between life and death during an emergency.
The program was based on the “idea that policing should be ‘homegrown’ rather than imposed and should encourage local initiative and participation in the determination of public safety needs,” said a comprehensive report by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center.
Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis said, "The Village Public Safety Officer program concept and idea came from our villages. It works for us because it was made to fit our region.” Each Alaskan tribal regional nonprofit, such as her employer, has power over the Village Public Safety Officer in their respective communities.
There are a few key distinctions between traditional law enforcement agencies, such as state police or state troopers, and the safety officer programs.
For one, neither the Canadian nor the Alaskan safety officers carry firearms.
Alaska’s safety officers aren’t completely unarmed — they do have tasers, spray and handcuffs, says Chris Hatch, the Village Public Safety Officer coordinator for the Copper River Native Association in the eastern Interior of Alaska. But the lack of guns can prevent fear that a situation might escalate.
“I feel perfectly fine without a gun. I've never actually used any of the tools on my duty belt except the handcuffs, in my eight years as a [safety officer]. I feel very safe doing the job, although I know there are some extreme risks,” he said.
Additionally, both Canadian and Alaskan safety officers live in the communities they serve. In rural and remote areas throughout Canada and Alaska, this arrangement isn’t always the law enforcement norm. Most state-funded officers live in larger urban areas, and then travel to smaller communities when a safety or crime incident occurs — a process Hatch calls the “hub and spoke” model.
This model, he believes, can sometimes lead to a view of Alaska State Troopers as “outsiders coming in to punish someone.”
“We're in a community where we get to know the people, and we’re there to respond as a situation is happening or before it happens, so it's a more proactive approach, versus the reactive approach [of the troopers],” he said of the village safety officers program. He added that one approach wasn’t necessarily better than the other, but that it did make a difference in the type of relationship the departments were able to have with community residents.
Both programs focus on general community safety, not just law enforcement or disciplinary measures. Typical calls may include responding to domestic disturbances, breaking up a fistfight, helping intoxicated individuals make it home safely, conducting search and rescue missions, or checking on local fire equipment. Aside from rare cases, neither program carries out traffic stops or felony investigations.
“The [community safety officers] make it a point to touch base with our elders — they do things like deliver Christmas dinners and make sure someone has had something to eat that day,” Bill said.
In one incident, the safety officers came across an elder stranded at home with a broken furnace. The temperature that day had reached a deadly minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Without the help of the officers, the easily fixable situation could have quickly turned fatal.
Bill believes that focus on safety instead of punishment has also helped prevent more missing and murdered Indigenous women cases. The officers often provide rides to women who might be in an unsafe situation or feel too intoxicated to drive. The knowledge that the officers can’t press charges helps remove hesitation to call for help.
“That means the world to me, because I'm one of the co-chairs on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Advisory Committee here in Yukon,” Bill said. "And I definitely see the value in something like this, for keeping women and children safe."
For both the Canadian and Alaskan safety officer programs, building trust and relationships within the community is considered one of the most important factors for making the program successful.
“The village safety officer folks don’t just come in and arrest people — they go to all the community events — potlatches, funerals, any of our ceremonies or meetings. They immerse themselves in the community. And then when something happens, the community knows the [safety officer] and knows that the job they are doing is in the best interest of the community,” said Darrell Hildebrand, Koyukon Athabascan, the Village Public Safety Officer coordinator for Tanana Chiefs Conference. He currently oversees five village officers throughout TCC’s interior villages.
This community-centric approach also includes taking into consideration local cultural and historical factors.
“Anybody who comes into your community needs to understand its dynamics — the interpersonal relationships, the intergenerational trauma, the culture of the people — all of that,” said Bill. “Given the history between Canada's Indigenous communities and the police, it's important to recognize that — we need to reset and rebuild relationships.”
Aucha Kameroff, public safety director for the Northwest Arctic Borough in Alaska, who is Yup’ik, agreed with Bill’s emphasis on incorporating cultural history and values into community safety.
“Prior to contact with Western modes of life, our cultures — Yup’ik, Iñupiat, Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida — we had our own justice systems in place. And we need to take back responsibility and police ourselves again. We had our own methods to take care of our society, and that’s innate in all of our Indigenous peoples — and we need to wake that up again,” said Kameroff.
To prepare themselves for this type of work, community safety officers go through a specially designed training program that addresses topics such as mental health, intergenerational trauma and peaceful conflict resolution.
Village public safety officers, on the other hand, receive the same training as the Alaska State Troopers. However, familiarity with the community remains a central part of their job. This local knowledge is sometimes built into the role — it’s not unusual for safety officers to work in the same village they were raised in.
“The [village safety officer] tends to know the community well. They know what the people there are thinking, needing and doing. Whereas the troopers would generally not know. I wouldn’t say they don’t care, but they just don't have the contact with the people in the community to build relationships in general. So when problems arise, quite often, it's more viewed as, ‘Well, the [safety officer] is here to help us,’” Hatch said.
Hatch recounted his first week on the job as a village safety officer in the Arctic village Noorvik. He was new there and didn’t know many people yet. He had received word that a highly intoxicated resident with a history of violent outbursts was wandering around town.
When he went to check on the resident, the man immediately assumed Hatch was there to arrest him. Instead, Hatch assured him he wasn’t in trouble, listened to what the man had to say, and walked him home to a place where he’d be safe.
The next morning, the man showed up at the public safety building where Hatch worked, banging on the door. Confused and slightly worried that the man was there to start a fight, Hatch let him in. To his surprise, the man had brought coffee grounds.
“He said, ‘Can we make some coffee? I want to hang out and talk with you.’”
From there on out, Hatch was welcomed into the community, and seen as a trusted figure.
“That's the difference between what we do and what the troopers do and how it impacts you. After that, because of that relationship with this guy, people had a different take on me. Because I didn't come in and try to be heavy-handed. I was willing to talk to people, and listen to them, more importantly,” he said.
Although both programs are separate from other law enforcement agencies, they still partner with organizations such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the State Troopers.
Bill made sure to emphasize that they don’t aim for the community safety officers to replace the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but rather have them fill the gaps in their services. It’s been three years since the program started, and she now counts the mounties as some of its biggest supporters.
Hatch also commented on the dynamic. He explained that help from state troopers was typically positive and beneficial, as long as the troopers were supportive of the village safety officers’ mission.
The Community Safety Officer program and many of the various regional Village Public Safety Officer programs have been able to produce positive outcomes in their communities. However, both programs still face challenges.
In Alaska, the Village Public Safety Officer program deals with funding limitations, high officer turnover rates and an increase in empty positions. These constraints can be emotionally taxing, especially for those who are their village’s sole safety officer.
The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica recently conducted a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Village Public Safety Officer program and law enforcement dynamics throughout Alaska. Among other statistics, they found that the number of safety officers had dropped from more than 100 in 2012, to only 38 in 2019.
Part of the issue lies in limited funding. The Village Public Safety Officer program is funded by the state of Alaska, but is overseen regionally, through tribal nonprofit groups such as Tanana Chiefs Conference or the Copper River Native Association. Some of the nonprofits have stated it is difficult for them to obtain the necessary amount of money from the state for expenditures such as safety officer salaries, gas, officer recruitment and equipment.
Infrastructure problems throughout the villages can also add more costs. Many villages lack extra housing or office space for the safety officers. Fixing this would require supplemental funds to go toward housing.
Additionally, the very same interpersonal elements that make the village safety program unique can also present a conflict of interest for officers. It can be extremely challenging for safety officers who are from the village they work in to address situations involving friends or relatives.
“It’s hard, because people are related to each other, and it makes the position difficult. I mean, who wants to arrest their uncle, or brother or sister, or maybe even their parents?” said Hildebrand.
Turnover rates and a declining task force aren’t as big of a worry for Kwanlin Dün’s new Community Safety Officer program. But questions still remain about future funding.
Their program is currently funded through a $1.4 million, three-year agreement with the Yukon government. Bill hopes the funding will continue in future years, but commented that it was sometimes like “fitting a square peg in a round hole” because the program wasn’t necessarily law enforcement, and technically didn’t fall under one federal agency.
Since the safety officer program started, Bill has received calls from neighboring cities and local governments, asking her for advice on how to replicate the program within their own communities.
In recent months, the attention has increased.
Her advice is to listen to what the community is asking for, and to avoid general, “across the board” community safety approaches from the government.
“I think this program has been successful because it's been built by the community from the ground up — it's not a one size fits all. Aspects of it might fit another community, but you would tailor it to what you need, because each community is different. If you really want to implement community safety, it has to come from within the community. If they don’t want it, it’s not going to work,” she said.
Some of the village public safety officers were unsure what a similar program would be like in other parts of America, since the remote northern region they work in is so culturally and geographically different from most places in the U.S. But they remained optimistic that elements of the program could be applied elsewhere.
“As far as the program working out in America, I don’t know, but I certainly know that it works up here. When we have enough folks to put out in the villages, it's certainly a program that can be successful,” said Hildenbrand.
Hatch agreed. “I do think it could be replicated anywhere in the country with a little imagination.”
For Kameroff, the local-focused safety program put a much needed emphasis on compassion and respect — which she believes should be applied to other communities’ safety programs as well.
“The [safety officer] has to be compassionate, and has to have empathy. It's so important that people have really strong convictions of treating people with respect — treating people like humans first and not just looking at them as a criminal,” she said.
Difficulties aside, Bill was hopeful other regions would be able to improve their safety and policing procedures through an increase in programs like Kwanlin Dün’s.
“I think that it’s time for a building of relationships between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the communities. Not just here in the Yukon, but in other places. It’s time that they create the space for a program like ours, and to support and work with programs like ours,” she said.
“People drive through our community now and say they can feel a difference.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.
For more information, watch this video of incoming Village Public Safety Officer Abraham Ekamrak with the Akiachuk tribal council . Video courtesy of the Association of Village Council Presidents.