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“Dire” Law Enforcement Crisis in Rural Alaska Prompts Emergency Declaration, New Federal Funding

The announcement comes a month after U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr visited the state to hear concerns about a lack of police in rural communities. The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica reported that one in three Alaska communities lacks local law enforcement.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr talks with Village Police Officer Phillip Wilson, left, and tribal police officer Joseph Steven Jr. outside the Napaskiak public safety building. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

This article was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared an emergency for public safety in rural Alaska on Friday and announced more than $10 million in funds as part of a sweeping plan to support law enforcement in Alaska Native villages.

The U.S. Department of Justice will immediately provide $6 million to the state to hire, equip and train rural police, and for mobile holding cells. An additional $4.5 million will support 20 officer positions and be provided to Alaska Native organizations by the end of July.

The announcement follows an investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica, which found that one in three communities in Alaska, about 70 altogether and nearly all of them Alaska Native, had no local law enforcement at some point this year. Many are in regions with the highest rates of poverty, sexual assault and suicide in the United States.

In some hub communities that do have police, survivors of sexual assault say rapists go unpunished. Mothers of Alaska Native women who were found dead under suspicious circumstances say cases go unsolved.

Barr visited Alaska in May to hear concerns from Alaska Natives and rural residents about a lack of police in rural communities and high rates of sexual assault and family violence. During a trip to a Western Alaska village, Barr called the situation an “emergency” and vowed to do everything he could to help.

“In May, when I visited Alaska, I witnessed firsthand the complex, unique, and dire law enforcement challenges the State of Alaska and its remote Alaska Native communities are facing,” Barr said in a statement Friday. “With this emergency declaration, I am directing resources where they are needed most and needed immediately, to support the local law enforcement response in Alaska Native communities, whose people are dealing with extremely high rates of violence.”

The state’s largest Native organization praised the decision.

“We appreciate that U.S. Attorney General William Barr clearly understands the urgency of the public safety situation in rural Alaska,” said Julie Kitka, longtime president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

In blue, U.S. Attorney General William Barr walks the Napaskiak boardwalk with tribal administrator Sharon Williams, right, and others on Friday, May 31, 2019. Barr visited Bethel and Napaskiak to learn about law enforcement and public safety challenges in the region. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

Kitka views Barr’s declaration and the scope of his plans as unprecedented, according to AFN spokesman Jeffry Silverman.

Alaska’s hard-to-reach villages — some accessible to investigators only by boat or plane, contributing at times to lengthy delays into criminal investigations — factored into Barr’s decision. The Department of Justice statement said the law enforcement problems were “not seen anywhere else in our nation.”

Barr said he was directing agencies within the Department of Justice to submit plans within 30 days on how they will provide more support for public safety efforts in rural Alaska. The goals must include providing better services to crime victims, stamping out illegal drugs, improving detention facilities and getting more police and legal resources to rural Alaska.

On top of the funds promised on Friday, two other agencies within the Department of Justice have identified $14 million that is available for child advocacy centers in Alaska and in the Lower 48.

“Lives depend on it, and we are committed to seeing a change in this unacceptable, daily reality for Alaska Native people,” Barr said.

Barr said he would work closely with Native leaders and congressional and state representatives to ensure the programs are delivered effectively.

“I want to be sure that the support this department offers to Alaska Native communities will support solutions identified by the communities themselves,” he said. “The only way for us to provide effective support is to work in partnership with others. This is true in Alaska and throughout Indian country.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation applauded Barr’s quick response.

“I appreciate the urgency that the Attorney General is placing on Alaska and our public safety situation,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. “I look forward to working with him to further identify and implement lasting, systemic solutions to rural public safety and wellness in coordination with the Department of Justice.”

The declaration and funding is “welcome news not only for the families that have been victims of crime, but also for the children of Alaska who deserve to grow up in neighborhoods that are safe and secure,” said U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican.

Alex DeMarban is a reporter for the Daily News. Reach him at [email protected].

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