This article was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
The Alaska agency that certifies police officers does not track how many cops work in remote villages or the identities of many of those law enforcement officers. We set out to find which communities have no police protection as well as to identify officers with criminal records who, under state law, are not qualified to wear a badge.
To do this, we used several databases to create a master list of Alaska communities and local organizations that might employ police officers. We reached out to every employer, in some cases up to a dozen times, in a multitude of ways.
The Data We Used
The Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs lists some 434 communities across Alaska. But some are ghost towns, abandoned logging camps or simply neighborhoods that do not exist as separate communities with their own local governments. In order to narrow our list to cities, towns and villages large enough to have some expectation of local law enforcement protection, we considered only locations that already had basic state and federal services.
Namely, in order to be considered a candidate for police protection for the purposes of this research, a community had to have all three of the following:
A local government such as a city council or traditional council;
A post office or a contract postal unit;
A public school.
To determine if a community had a local city government, we consulted the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs databases for city mayors, city managers and city councils. To determine if a community had a tribal government, we consulted the Bureau of Indian Affairs tribal leaders directory and the Division of Community and Regional Affairs database of federally recognized tribes. Tribal police officers are sometimes employed by village corporations established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, so we also reached out to each corporation listed in Division of Community and Regional Affairs databases. These databases and directories were also used to identify points of contact, phone numbers and emails for representatives of each city, tribe and corporation.
The presence of a post office or a contract postal unit was determined using the U.S. Postal Service online post office locator. (Postal Service spokesman Brian Sperry suggested this method. When we identified communities that appeared to be populated but did not have a post office or contract postal unit listed by the Postal Service, we confirmed the absence of a post office with Sperry.)
Finally, at the recommendation of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, we used the Alaska Public Schools Database to determine which communities had active schools and the enrollment for each. (Alaska generally closes a rural school when enrollment drops below 10 students.) The most current enrollment data was double-checked using a separate source within the Department of Education’s data center, enrollment totals as of Oct. 1, the most recent information available.
All told, 195 communities met the above criteria. Of that number, 70 communities reported having no police of any kind at some point in 2019.
Two important caveats: The number of Alaska communities with local police protection changes on a near-daily basis. This research presents a snapshot of communities that, at some point between Jan. 1 and May 1, reported having no police protection. Some may have since hired officers, while other communities have since lost police.
Also, the data does not account for roving village public safety officers who, like state troopers, occasionally visit a village but are not permanently based there.
Determining Which Communities Have Police
There are many different kinds of law enforcement officers in Alaska, and their requirements, training and pay vary greatly. When considering whether a village had law enforcement, we did not differentiate between state troopers, certified city police officers, village public safety officers, village police officers and tribal police officers. In other words, a community could have a single tribal police officer who has received no law enforcement training and that community would still be considered to have local law enforcement for the purposes of this research.
That is because local law enforcement officers of all kinds are sometimes asked to respond to emergencies and village police officers and tribal police officers have provided lifesaving protections in Alaska despite receiving less pay and training.
To determine where state troopers are posted, we asked the Alaska Department of Public Safety for a list of all current posts and vacancies. The information in our research, including the number of trooper positions filled, the locations where troopers are posted and the number of vacancies, was provided on March 21 by a spokesman for the troopers, Tim DeSpain.
The list of locations where village public safety officers are currently posted is based on staffing as of Feb. 21, when 42 of them were employed across Alaska, according to data provided by DeSpain. In one case, the list was updated through interviews with village city leaders who described the re-assignment of a village public safety officer from Ambler to Kiana.
Determining the locations of village police officers and tribal police officers proved the greatest challenge.
Under Alaska Administrative Code, a village of 1,000 or fewer people that is located off the Alaska road system can hire a village police officer. Communities are required to notify the Alaska Police Standards Council within 30 days hiring such an officer. But in practice, the regulatory board receives few notifications and is unaware of the majority of village police officers working in Alaska at any given time, according to the executive director of the Police Standards Council, Bob Griffiths. As a result, the state cannot provide a comprehensive list of village police officers.
Tribes are not required to notify the state of tribal police officer hires, and their identifies are also unknown to the state in most cases.
To learn which communities have one or more village or tribal police officers, and which communities have no police whatsoever, we contacted every Alaska traditional council, tribal organization, village corporation and municipality in Alaska. All told, we asked more than 500 organizations representing 195 communities if they employ a police officer.
We requested the information in multiple ways:
- Each tribe, traditional council, corporation and city received an initial email request for police employment information in January or February. Those that did not respond received at least two follow-up emails.
- Those that did not respond to multiple emails received mailed letters.
- Beginning in March, we called every entity that had not responded to our emailed and mailed records request. In many cases, multiple phone calls were necessary to make contact with an employee or representative.
All told, we were able to speak to someone in all but 21 of the 195 communities. All 21 of those communities had a verified form of local law enforcement, such as a trooper, village public safety officer or a North Slope Borough Police Department officer stationed locally.
We made follow-up calls to the 70 villages without law enforcement to verify that information. Of those, officials in 60 verified that they had no police at some point this year. Officials in the remaining 10 communities did not respond to recent messages.
Determining Identities of Police Officers
For small cities, tribes, traditional councils and corporations that employ village or tribal police officers, we asked for the identity of the officers. Some communities provided officers’ names. Some declined to name local police. In some cases, the Division of Community and Regional Affairs had collected officers names through a survey that asked for a list of all municipal employees. Other village officers were identified through online trooper dispatches or news reports. Research into the identities of village police officers and tribal police officers is ongoing.