There is no place in this country, and very few places in the world, like Alaska. Its sheer enormity is overwhelming; once, I took a prop plane from Nome to a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea called Shishmaref and all I did was stare out the window of the plane at the vast white landscape below. It didn’t seem like one place. It seemed like every place, all at once.
But, to the people living there, Alaska is a place like any other place and, right now, the state of Alaska is in desperate trouble. The folks at ProPublica teamed up with the staff of the Anchorage Daily News to produce a report on the state’s shattered system of local law enforcement. There is a village called Stebbins there, up along the Bering Strait, in which every local police officer has been convicted at one time or another of domestic violence.
Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes. “My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people. He was wrong. On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help. “Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”
In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind. The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook. Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter. (The officer named in the restraining order said he was busy and hung up the phone when asked about his criminal history; the other officer admitted to the crime.)
The reason for this is quite simple. Law enforcement in Alaska, especially in its many backwater areas, is falling apart. Back in May, this same reporting consortium revealed that 30 percent of all the communities in Alaska have no local law-enforcement at all. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice earmarked $10.5 million in aid to support local law-enforcement in rural Alaskan villages. This has helped, a little. Meanwhile, as the report indicates, the state government has given up sorting out the mess.
A key part of the problem: There aren’t enough state troopers or other state-funded cops to go around. When it comes to boots-on-the-ground law enforcement, village police officers (VPOs) and tribal police officers (TPOs) working in Alaska villages are at least as common. Yet no one keeps track of who these officers are, where they are working, if they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training. The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess. Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest. Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country.
Then there is Governor Mike Dunleavy, who apparently believes in being “tough on crime” as long as he doesn’t have to ask people to pay for it.