January 3: Alaska Newspapers on police protection in rural Alaska:

Posted: Tuesday, January 08, 2002

The Department of Public Safety is trying to dodge a bullet.

It's on trial for allegedly providing inadequate and racially discriminatory police protection in rural Alaska.

On its behalf, state attorneys have filed the motion, which seeks an early end to the 2-year-old case brought by several Native leaders and villages.

Filed by Alaska Intertribal Council, the Native Justice Center and several Native villages and leaders, the case seeks to freeze the use of over $8 million of federal funds until it submits a plan to eliminate discrimination.

The state's motion for summary judgment does not question the disparity in services that exists among some areas of the state, areas that are often divided along racial boundaries.

The numbers simply can't be refuted. Those areas that receive fully trained and certified local police protection are more than 87 percent non-Native. Meanwhile, areas that do not receive that protection are more than 80 percent Native.

Instead, the state spends much of its time arguing that equal police protection is not constitutionally guaranteed and that there has been no intention to discriminate based on race.

That may be true. The Department of Public Safety has taken an active approach to improving police protection in rural Alaska, implementing the Village Public Safety Officer program to create homegrown constables that support the efforts of state troopers.

Though the VPSO program has its flaws -- the annual turnover rate averages 40 percent and officers are often poorly paid and trained -- the state is making strides to improve the program.

Last year, perhaps because of the lawsuit, legislators boosted officer pay by more than 11 percent -- to about $35,000 -- and made them eligible for the state's retirement system.

But the state hasn't done enough. One-hundred sixty-five villages have either poorly trained safety officers or none at all. The Alaska Constitution may not call for equal police protection, but the public should.

The state has done a good job of presenting its case. It has clearly tried to provide better police protection under challenging circumstances.

But while there may be a question that its policy is racist, there is no question that public safety in rural Alaska must improve.

At the very least, these issues need examination. Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason should rule against the state and allow the plaintiffs to have their day in court.



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