Rural law enforcement lawsuit goes to judge

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A lawsuit claiming that state-funded law enforcement is unconstitutionally inferior in rural areas is now in the hands of a judge.

Two years of paperwork, two weeks of trial and two hours of closing arguments ended Thursday. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason will decide if law enforcement in mainly Native off-road Alaska villages is unconstitutionally inferior to services available to similar-sized non-Native towns on the road system.

Lawrence Aschenbrenner, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing Native village and individual plaintiffs, said crime victims in off-road villages must wait hours, days and sometimes weeks for Alaska State Troopers to respond to calls for help.

State-paid village public safety officers or village police officers in about half the 165 off-road villages are unarmed, undertrained and ill-prepared to deal with life-and-death threats, he said. The rest of the off-road villages have no local police at all.

Aschenbrenner asked Gleason to put herself in the place of a domestic violence or assault victim in such a place.

''The overpowering fear has to be enormous,'' he said.

Aschenbrenner said the VPSO program was created as a racially separate system for Alaska Native villages and has grown into a second-rate program that should be changed by court order.

Attorneys for the state, however, said Aschenbrenner and experts who testified for the Native villages distorted facts and statistics. Law enforcement protection offered to rural villages by state troopers posted in regional hubs and augmented by VPSOs is an efficient service run on a limited budget, said assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin.

Four factors -- distance, population density, lack of roads and lack of lighted runways in some villages -- make policing in rural Alaska different than in urban Alaska or in other parts of America, Baldwin said. Race is not an issue in allocating trooper resources, he said.

''During a 10-day trial, we could hardly hear anything bad about the VPSO program'' from witnesses for the plaintiff villages, Baldwin said. Instead, ''we heard that people wanted more of them.''

He and Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general, reminded Gleason that Col. Randy Crawford, director of the troopers, and public safety commissioner Glenn Godfrey testified that budget decisions and personnel allocations usually favor rural Alaska at the expense of urban areas.

''There are more troopers per capita in Detachment C (with headquarters in Bethel) than in just about any other detachment in the state,'' Baldwin said. ''There is not discrimination going on here in this case.''

Gleason said she hopes to rule ''in the near term.''

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