'What’s wrong with this picture, commissioner?'

Joaqlin Estus

Attorney General announces $42 million to bolster state’s failure to provide for public safety in rural Alaska

Alaska in 2018 saw its highest violent crime rate in five years, according to a recent Anchorage Daily News story. That’s saying a lot since the state already had the nation’s highest rape rate, by far. Yet, sexual assault numbers went up 11 percent from 2017 to 2018, making Alaska’s rate four times the national average.

Alaska Native women are victims in disproportionate numbers. They make up less than 20 percent of the population but nearly half the rape victims. In 2003 to 2004, rates of sexual violence against Native women were at least seven times the non-Native rate.

Various law and order commissions have pointed to the lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska as a big part of the problem. A third of rural villages have no local law enforcement. Too often the nearest help is a plane flight away, in a state where weather can ground planes for days.

Speaking by teleconference from Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney General William Barr told the audience at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention that people should be able to live where they want to live and according to their own traditions without society forcing them to move into cities simply to be safe. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, later said it’s not much safer for Alaska Native women in Alaska’s cities.)

The audience applauded Barr’s announcement that the justice department is awarding $42 million for public safety in rural Alaska. That’s on top of $10.5 million awarded in May when Barr declared a law enforcement emergency and awarded $6 million to the state for grants for critical infrastructure, such as holding cells, followed by $4.5 million for 20 officer positions and training. Some of that money has already been awarded to tribes to support village public safety and victim services.

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U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska Bryan Schroder described federal efforts to address Alaska’s public safety crisis while seated in front of a kuspuk by Amanda Webb with images of missing and murdered Alaska Native women.(Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Alaska has a strongly centralized public safety system with state troopers providing the first line of defense where communities cannot afford a local police force.

The Village Public Safety Officer program is Alaska’s remedy for state budgets that don’t allow a state trooper in every community. Village Public Safety Officers are trained to respond to emergencies such as search and rescue, fires, medical emergencies, crime prevention and basic law enforcement.

Following a panel discussion and during an open mic question and comment period, Northwest Arctic borough public safety director Aucha Kameroff, who is Inupiaq, asked, "If public safety is a priority [for the state of Alaska], then why was one of my biggest tasks when I first got into my position to apply for [Village Public Safety Officer] grants? All the state agencies that get law enforcement don’t have to apply for grants,” said Kameroff. “So what’s wrong with this picture, commissioner?”

Alaska public safety commissioner Amanda Price replied, "What’s wrong with this picture is the system the state has in place… could be easier.”

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Amanda Price said she is different from any of Alaska’s previous public safety commissioners. “I am a woman. I have personally experienced violence in my home. I have been victimized and impacted."(Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

She explained the money has to be appropriated by the legislature then go to the department of public safety, which reviews applications to fairly hand out grants. She said the process is burdensome and needs an evaluation and recommendations for improvements. Price also said the public safety crisis in rural Alaska is her highest priority.

Director of the University of Alaska Northwest campus Barbara Amarok, Inupiaq, stated she’s from Nome where, “For several years we've been actively trying to promote and ensure effective and equitable response to sexual assault, particularly for Alaska Native women.

“We recognize the need for more law enforcement to participate in training, professional development, to learn more about our culture and our life-ways,” said Amarok, “And also to understand the complicated and complex history of race relations that we have in Alaska.”

The Alaska Legislative Public Safety Workgroup is working on legislation that would increase crime-prevention services such as behavioral health intervention, substance abuse treatment and mental health support.

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Inupiaq Alaska Legislative Public Safety Workgroup co-chair Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said he’d like to see a more streamlined and flexible Village Public Safety Officer program to better recruit and retain officers.(Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Workgroup Co-Chair Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, an Inupiaq medical doctor, said one reason he feels so passionately about public safety it he has two daughters.

When “I think of the environment that we're going to try and make for them to grow up in, it's one that I'm very concerned about and fearful,” said Olson.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist.