Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins is the winner of this year’s Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award and Scripps Howard Impact Award. He was honored for his investigation “Lawless,” a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, which uncovered a sexual assault crisis in rural Alaska and how it is compounded by a profound lack of public safety services.
The awards honored the work for its coverage of racial disparities, as well as for its real-world impact. “Lawless” was the first comprehensive investigation to lay bare Alaska’s failing, two-tiered criminal justice system. Its first story, based on more than 750 public records requests and interviews, found that one in three rural Alaska communities has no local law enforcement of any kind. These indigenous communities are also among the most vulnerable in the United States, with the highest rates of sexual assault, suicide and domestic violence.
The series’ second major installment found that dozens of Alaska communities, desperate for police of any kind, hired officers convicted of felonies, domestic violence, assault and other offenses that would make them ineligible to work in law enforcement or even as security guards anywhere else in the country. Next, Hopkins revealed how the state’s 40-year-old Village Public Safety Officer Program, designed to recruit villagers to work as lifesaving first responders, has failed by every measure. Alaska had quietly denied funding for basic recruitment and equipment costs for these unarmed village officers while publicly claiming to prioritize public safety spending.
“Lawless” also exposed how the Alaska State Troopers agency, created to protect Alaska Native villages, instead patrols mostly white suburbs surrounding cities on the road system like Wasilla. That’s because residents in these highly populated regions — home to the current governor and former Gov. Sarah Palin — refuse to pay taxes for local law enforcement while rural areas pay the price. The series ended with a list of six practical solutions to Alaska’s law enforcement crisis, based on interviews with experts, combined with a dozen op-eds from village leaders, the Alaska congressional delegation and sexual assault survivors who offered additional ideas.
The impact of the stories was dramatic, with tangible steps taken to address the crisis. After U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared the problems identified in our stories to be a public safety crisis, the U.S. Department of Justice pledged more than $52 million to provide public safety officers, training and infrastructure in Alaska villages. The U.S. attorney’s office announced it will add rural prosecutors, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced plans to hire 15 additional rural Alaska troopers — increasing the number of state law enforcement officers based directly in villages by 40% in 2020. In addition, the Alaska Police Standards Council has proposed changing state regulations that govern the hiring and screening of village police officers.
The Daily News’ Loren Holmes, Bill Roth, Marc Lester, David Hulen, Alex Demarban, Michelle Theriault Boots and Tess Williams, as well as ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein, Adriana Gallardo, Beena Raghavendran and Nadia Sussman also contributed to the series.
Administered by Columbia Journalism School, the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award recognizes outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States. ProPublica projects also won the Tobenkin Award in 2019 and 2018.
The Scripps Howard Impact Award recognizes journalism that serves the public through coverage of an issue leading to changes in the public, private or business sector. This is the top award given by the Scripps Howard Foundation, honoring what the judges deemed to be the piece of journalism that had the greatest impact. Another ProPublica Local Reporting Network project, “A 911 Emergency” by the Public’s Radio, was one of three finalists for the Impact Award.