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We Found Villages That Hired Criminals as Cops. Now Officials Want It To Change.

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found small Alaska cities have employed police whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired. Now, the state board is working to ensure they meet basic hiring standards.

Village police officers ride a four wheeler through the Alaska Native village of Stebbins, one of at least 14 Alaska villages that has hired village police officers with criminal records. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

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

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The Alaska state board that regulates police officers is trying to figure out who is serving as police in remote villages and whether they committed crimes that would bar them from doing so, seeking to plug holes in oversight identified this year by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica.

The newsrooms reported in July that some village governments have resorted to hiring criminals, including registered sex offenders, as local law enforcement. All told, at least 14 small Alaska cities have employed some 34 police whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under current state regulations.

“This media exposure highlighted long-standing problems for (the Alaska Police Standards Council) and the rural communities and helped focus attention on solving the problems,” executive director Bob Griffiths wrote to council members on Nov. 26.

“We reasonably expect the legislature will, in the coming session, address placing statutory limitations on who can be hired as a police officer,” he wrote.

The regulatory board is also proposing a change to state regulations that would expressedly forbid anyone convicted of a sex crime from working as an officer in remote villages, even on a temporary basis.

These efforts are a top priority for the Alaska Police Standards Council, said Chairman Justin Doll, chief of the Anchorage Police Department.

“We’re very concerned” about problem officers across the state, he said. Every Alaska community should feel secure in knowing that those wearing badges meet basic standards for law enforcement, he said.

The standards council oversees certification of police officers, state troopers and corrections officers, but village police officers serving in the smallest villages have largely escaped regulation of any kind. In one village, every member of the seven-person police force had been convicted of domestic violence as of early 2019. (Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently announced the community and a neighboring village will receive two Alaska state troopers in 2020.)

In addition to identifying every VPO in remote villages, the police standards council wants to train and certify those rural police. The regulatory council has started reaching out to the 113 Alaska communities eligible to hire VPOs. As of Dec. 12, the council had made contact with a majority.

The regulators identified 51 officers, most of whom were unknown to the state, meaning they were never properly vetted by regulators. A Department of Public Safety spokesman said the state recently began performing background checks on the newly identified officers. One has already been disqualified.

Under Alaska law, a village city government that is not on the road system and has fewer than 1,000 residents can hire a VPO to enforce local laws and assist troopers and other state-certified police. The law is intended to allow remote village governments to hire officers who might not meet the more stringent age and background requirements of police officers in larger communities that have more potential applicants.

Here are some of the changes proposed by the police regulatory board, following the Daily News and ProPublica investigation:

  • Clarify that anyone convicted of a felony is disqualified from working as a VPO. (Current regulations say that only felonies within the past 10 years are disqualifying.)
  • State that any conviction for a domestic violence crime or a sexual offense disqualifies a person from working as a VPO.
  • Prohibit village city governments from hiring applicants on a temporary basis if they do not meet hiring standards.
  • Require village city governments to determine whether police applicants meet basic hiring standards — and to determine the applicant’s eligibility with the police standards council — before the applicant is hired.

The council will seek public input on the proposed changes in the coming year.

In the meantime, the council is proposing replacing current VPO requirements with “new, more specific requirements” that include mandatory training on working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Stay in Touch

ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News are investigating sexual violence in urban and rural Alaska. Here’s how you can stay in touch with us:

Kyle Hopkins is an investigative reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kylehopkinsAK.

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