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State is confronting assaults: More progress is essential to end Alaska's epidemic

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Posted: Sunday, July 1, 2012 12:01 am | Updated: 10:34 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

The May 22 New York Times article, “For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape, Rare Justice,” should be a call to action for all Alaskans.

We have started a statewide Choose Respect initiative in Alaska, now active in 120 communities. These communities are taking action to end Alaska’s epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault.

It is well documented, most recently by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center’s victimization study, that Alaska has the highest rates of these crimes in the nation. This epidemic is not something our state is proud of. Abuse and sexual assault across our nation must be addressed.

As commissioner of public safety, I want to encourage every Alaskan to get involved. The safety of our communities takes the work of many hands: troopers, local law enforcement, village public safety officers and community members working together.

I am proud that 120 Alaskan communities are taking a stand to end the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault. Alaskans are no longer hiding from this horrific reality that impacts so many of our communities and families.

We are witnessing men and women standing up together to reclaim the sanctity of their homes, their families, and their own bodies. Together, we are breaking the culture of silence.

The Times’ account of the young woman who was raped in Emmonak, and whose attempts to report the rape were received with silence, is heartbreaking. Anyone who is a victim of rape deserves to be heard, to be believed and to be helped. Calls to law enforcement must be met with a response, and most importantly, investigated so that the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I take issue with those who encourage victims to not report to authorities that they have been sexually assaulted. Rapists must be held accountable.

But I also understand the tragic reality, a reality that is experienced across Alaska and the Lower 48, which is that some victims choose not to report. They do not think they will be believed. They are deeply concerned about being judged and blamed. And ultimately, they do not think the report of the sexual assault will bring justice.

The fact remains that these crimes leave deep emotional scars. All victims deserve somewhere and someone to turn to who will listen to them, and offer them solace and kindness, not judgment or blame. We can all be that source of help — whether or not that victim chooses to report to the police.

Access to law enforcement is vital to the safety and sense of security of the public. When we started in 2009, nearly 100 Alaska communities had no ready access to law enforcement — help was sometimes days away.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has vowed to Alaska villages that every community that wants a law enforcement presence shall have it.

We’ve funded, trained and placed more law enforcement officers in these communities by doubling the number of VPSOs in rural Alaska. Decent, secure and affordable housing is an issue that impacts retention and recruitment of officers in rural communities. For several years, the state has been offering grants to villages to attract and retain officers.

In Emmonak, which was featured prominently in the New York Times story, we added state trooper positions in 2010. We also have VPSOs located in many of the villages surrounding Emmonak. We do not have a shortage of sexual assault evidence collection kits in Alaska and we realize how critically important a forensic exam is to successful prosecution of offenders. We have gone a step further and have ensured that smaller police agencies that don’t have the resources can assure this evidence is safeguarded because we will pay for the exam and transportation to have the exam completed if necessary.

There is much to be proud of in Alaska, but there is much work to be done here and across the nation. All of us can help save a life. What we all can do is remember the following:

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, you are not alone. Help is available by calling the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. If you have been harmed, you are not to blame, and the shame is not yours.

Joseph Masters is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety and has spent 30 years in law enforcement, including positions as a village police officer, a village public safety officer, a municipal police officer and an Alaska State Trooper.

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