According to research by ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News, one 1 of 3 Alaska communities does not have local law enforcement. Alaska’s sexual assault rate is three times the national average. Alaska women experience epidemic levels of violence, ranking near the top nationally for incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women despite the state’s small population. Public safety is so dire in rural Alaska that U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared it an “epidemic” during a recent visit, pledging more than $10 million to help make communities safer. These figures are as jarring as they are unacceptable and describe a simple fact: We are failing rural Alaskans.
One of the hard realities of public safety in our vast state is that it is simply not possible to post an Alaska State Trooper in every far-flung community. It’s also not a viable option to assume troopers in hub communities (like Bethel, Utqiagvik, Dillingham or Kotzebue) can respond to a village quickly enough to protect Alaskans in harm’s way, assess a situation or secure a crime scene. Weather, limited resources and other factors can mean it takes well over a day to get a public safety official to a village. For thousands of Alaska children, women and families, having law enforcement 24 hours away is little comfort.
To help improve law enforcement access across Alaska, the State and 10 tribal nonprofits created the Village Public Safety Officer program to ensure immediate public safety resources are available in rural areas. VPSOs are first responders to everything from house fires to domestic disputes. Having a local first responder in any Alaska community helps to accomplish a fundamental goal: everyone deserves the right to feel safe. Alaska’s policymakers and the Department of Public Safety have long recognized these unique challenges and worked tirelessly to ensure rural communities have access to help when they need it, just like any Alaskan. For these reasons, the VPSO program has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
However, the Dunleavy administration continues to make inaccurate and misleading statements about the VPSO program, the tribal nonprofits who manage the program and rural public safety in general. These statements include using deceptive cost accounting to make it appear that a VPSO costs more than a state trooper equivalent, when the opposite is true. Another assertion repeatedly made is the VPSO program is flush with unspent funds and the program can afford to be cut without negative impact, when program contractors have been denied supplemental funding by the Department of Public Safety to hire additional VPSOs on the grounds of no available funds. Finally, among many other inaccurate statements, Administration officials have argued that providing a community with local law enforcement won’t translate to better public safety outcomes. Imagine telling a family, elder or other vulnerable Alaskan in harm’s way that there is no local 911 to call but they’ll be safe.
While we believe the VPSO program is essential, we do not believe it is perfect. The creation of the joint House-Senate working group is a step toward improving and updating the VPSO program. There are tangible policy changes we can implement to improve the program, including steps to increase officer recruitment and retention, provide more flexibility for how tribes can manage the program for success and provide the program with better, more robust resources.
Critical to the program’s overall success is the undeniable truth that we must consult and work hand in hand with our tribal partners and local leaders who manage the VPSO program. Alaska is a diverse state. A model for improving public safety in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta might look very different than what works in Southeast Alaska or above the Arctic Circle. A good rule of thumb for state leaders here in Alaska is, if you want to know what works in a community, all you need to do is listen to someone who lives there.
Public safety and keeping families safe are vital to Alaska’s future. Right now, we are coming up short. As we have heard overwhelmingly from Alaska’s elected officials; there is no better investment than ensuring each and every Alaska family is able to go to sleep feeling safe. At a time when crime rates in rural Alaska are at epidemic levels, we should be doubling down on our commitment to making rural Alaskans safer and continuing to invest in this essential program.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky is a Democrat from Bethel. Rep. John Lincoln is a Democrat from Kotzebue.