Alaska’s Uneven Rural Law Enforcement System Often Leaves Remote Villages With No Cops

Kyle Hopkins

Chenega, Alaska, a remote village of less than 100 people, has one village public safety officer, but other, larger Alaska villages have none at all.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by ProP­ub­li­ca, which pro­duced it in part­ner­ship with the Anchor­age Dai­ly News.

In his first sev­en months as a vil­lage pub­lic safe­ty offi­cer (VPSO) in the remote Alas­ka vil­lage of Chene­ga, Andrew Jon­da has enjoyed world-class fish­ing and gor­geous ocean views.

What he hasn’t done is make a sin­gle arrest.

That’s because the com­mu­ni­ty Jon­da has been hired with pub­lic mon­ey to pro­tect is home to only 40 to 60 peo­ple. The crime rate is much low­er than oth­er places around the rest of Alas­ka and the U.S.,” he said.

Which rais­es a ques­tion: When vil­lages 10 times as large go with­out law enforce­ment of any kind, why is Chene­ga one of the last Alas­ka com­mu­ni­ties served by a VPSO?

An analy­sis by the Anchor­age Dai­ly News and ProP­ub­li­ca has found that as the num­ber of Alas­ka VPSOs sharply declined in recent years, the scant remain­ing offi­cers are increas­ing­ly like­ly to work in com­mu­ni­ties with few­er than 100 res­i­dents. The towns and vil­lages served by VPSOs today have few­er Alas­ka Natives res­i­dents, high­er per capi­ta income lev­els and are more like­ly to be on the road sys­tem than in 2005, our review found.

The trend, dri­ven by poor recruit­ment and a lack of infra­struc­ture in the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, leaves some of the most remote and largest vil­lages unprotected.

Most rur­al Alas­ka vil­lages can only be reached by plane, boat or snow­mo­bile, and a local first respon­der can make the dif­fer­ence between life and death in an emer­gency. In 2005, Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty records showed only one VPSO worked in a vil­lage on the road sys­tem. Today, one in six work in high­way communities.

VPSOs are not select­ed and deployed by the state but instead are hired by nine non­prof­it trib­al con­sor­tiums, which pro­vide health ser­vices in their regions, as well as one bor­ough gov­ern­ment. So even if the need is greater in one loca­tion, if the area’s non­prof­it can­not fill an open­ing, it won’t have a VPSO. The offi­cers’ salaries are fund­ed by the state, which also adopts poli­cies that gov­ern what they can and can’t do.

Some VPSOs say these pol­i­cy deci­sions, such as restrict­ing VPSOs from trav­el­ing between vil­lages and for­bid­ding them from work­ing on felony inves­ti­ga­tions with­out over­sight, has made the job less desir­able and less effec­tive. As the region­al non­prof­its strug­gled to fill offi­cer vacan­cies this year, the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty denied 72% of their requests for recruit­ment spending.

I don’t think the pro­gram is bro­ken. I think the state is break­ing it,” said Chris Hatch, for­mer VPSO coor­di­na­tor for the North­west Arc­tic Bor­ough who empha­sized he was shar­ing his per­son­al opin­ion and not speak­ing for any institution.

Hatch now works for a non­prof­it that employs VPSOs in com­mu­ni­ties along the Glenn and Richard­son high­ways, east of Anchor­age, Alaska’s largest city.

It’s eas­i­er to get recruits because you are on the road sys­tem,” Hatch said. You can dri­ve to Anchor­age in four hours.”

Under state reg­u­la­tions, local vil­lage gov­ern­ments are expect­ed to pro­vide hous­ing and util­i­ties for some police offi­cers. But hous­ing short­ages are com­mon in vil­lages, and in 31 Alas­ka vil­lages a major­i­ty of homes have no run­ning water or sew­er service.

Leonard Wall­ner, a for­mer troop­er and head of the VPSO pro­gram for sev­er­al coastal com­mu­ni­ties in south-cen­tral Alas­ka, said he placed a VPSO in the tiny com­mu­ni­ty of Chene­ga because trib­al lead­ers there bent over back­ward” to obtain an officer.

You’re look­ing at the infra­struc­ture. What’s avail­able, where the person’s going to live?” Wall­ner said.

Wall­ner said Chene­ga pro­vid­ed Jon­da a home. That’s one rea­son the non­prof­it placed him in the com­mu­ni­ty even though there are larg­er vil­lages in the region with no police.

It’s much eas­i­er to recruit to some place where the infra­struc­ture is in place,” Wall­ner said.

Cur­rent and for­mer VPSOs said work­ing solo in larg­er vil­lages can over­whelm a sin­gle offi­cer, lead­ing to burnout. Long­time White Moun­tain VPSO Dan Har­rel­son said he does fine cov­er­ing the com­mu­ni­ty of 200 peo­ple, but vil­lages of 600 or 700 peo­ple stretch a lone offi­cer too thin.

In oth­er vil­lages, VPSOs have lit­tle recourse if local lead­ers want them gone; some are pres­sured to leave if they arrest a polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed resident.

This year, the admin­is­tra­tion of Gov. Mike Dun­leavy, a Repub­li­can, has used job vacan­cies as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to deny cer­tain requests for VPSO fund­ing and to cut the allot­ment in the state bud­get. Dun­leavy and his pub­lic safe­ty com­mis­sion­er, Aman­da Price, said that the mon­ey wasn’t going to be spent any­way and that the cuts caused no harm to the dwin­dling VPSO force.

But the state also denied requests to pay for VPSO recruit­ment adver­tis­ing and for equip­ment such as fin­ger­print scan­ners, evi­dence lock­ers and anti-sui­cide blan­kets designed so they can­not be rolled into a noose, accord­ing to a Dai­ly News and ProP­ub­li­ca review of state Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty contracts.

Of the $55,775 that VPSO employ­ers request­ed for recruit­ment and adver­tis­ing to attract new can­di­dates, the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty denied all but $15,775. The North­west Arc­tic Bor­ough, which serves 10 Inu­pi­aq vil­lages, has no VPSOs and asked for $1,000 in month­ly recruit­ment fund­ing. The state OK’d $200.

Dun­leavy told del­e­gates at the Alas­ka Fed­er­a­tion of Natives con­ven­tion this month in Fair­banks that the state would fund any VPSO posi­tions for which there are viable can­di­dates. Asked moments lat­er why the state denied a major­i­ty of requests for recruit­ment fund­ing, he did not direct­ly answer.

All I can answer is what we’ll be doing for­ward,” he said. We’re going to be fund­ing all the posi­tions and the recruits that the non­prof­its are able to find.”

Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty spokes­woman Megan Peters said some equip­ment fund­ing and recruit­ment spend­ing was denied because of the small num­ber of remain­ing offi­cers. Last year, $4.1 mil­lion that the depart­ment gave to the VPSO pro­gram was returned to state cof­fers because of job vacan­cies, Peters wrote in a response to questions.

Grantees asked for [a high­er] amount despite the fact that many of them are not able to spend the mon­ey they were pre­vi­ous­ly appro­pri­at­ed because they are not fill­ing their vacant posi­tions and are not able to retain some VPSOs,” she wrote.

A review of VPSO grants shows region­al non­prof­its spend as much as 35% of their awards on over­head or indi­rect costs.” A for­mer pub­lic safe­ty com­mis­sion­er, Bill Tandeske, said that fig­ure should be no high­er than 15%.

Price said the state made sev­er­al changes to the fund­ing agree­ments VPSO employ­ers signed in July, in hopes of attract­ing more appli­cants and speed­ing the hir­ing process. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the length of VPSO train­ing was short­ened from 16 weeks to eight weeks in order to allow vil­lage can­di­dates to return home for hunt­ing and fish­ing seasons.

The state Leg­is­la­ture has cre­at­ed a task force to rec­om­mend addi­tion­al fix­es for the pro­gram. Rep. Chuck Kopp, R‑Anchorage, said new pro­pos­als should be ready by January.

Jon­da, the for­mer Eagle Scout work­ing in tiny Chene­ga, said he moved to the Prince William Sound island from Tuc­son, Ari­zona. He dreamed of liv­ing in Alas­ka and the job, start­ing at $26.79 an hour, could help pay down stu­dent debt.

Jon­da said he’s quick­ly find­ing his place in the vil­lage. He’s invit­ed to bon­fires and fish­ing trips. There’s so few peo­ple, so every­body sticks togeth­er,” he said.

Even the small­est com­mu­ni­ties aren’t always as qui­et as they seem.

Just two years ago, before the arrival of the new VPSO, Chene­ga res­i­dents found a man dead in his home. Around the same time, a local 20-year-old man wrote a strange post on Face­book, say­ing he had to teach some­one who attacked him a lesson.”

The vil­lage went on lock­down, Wall­ner said.

The com­mu­ni­ty was mak­ing calls: Help, we’ve got this guy wan­der­ing the vil­lage,’” he said. Everybody’s lock­ing their doors because they don’t know what the hell is going to hap­pen next.”

Inves­ti­ga­tors even­tu­al­ly deter­mined two men had been play­ing video games and drink­ing vod­ka togeth­er when they began to fight. One beat the oth­er to death with his fists and wood­en rail from a bro­ken chair. (The defen­dant plead­ed guilty to manslaugh­ter in 2018.)

Sev­en hours passed as the sus­pect wan­dered the vil­lage, before the first troop­er arrived. Had a VPSO been on the job at the time, it would have tak­en min­utes to respond, Wall­ner said.

Kyle Hop­kins is an inves­tiga­tive reporter at the Anchor­age Dai­ly News. Email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_BZupXiiIsC’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/ and fol­low him on Twit­ter at @kylehopkinsAK.
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