ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Native groups and police are working together to fight a vexing problem: the rape and sexual assault of Native women.
The Alaska Native Women Sexual Assault Committee was formed in January 1999 after the Federal Bureau of Investigation again ranked Alaska No. 1 for rape. The ranking came as no surprise. Alaska has topped that crime category about two-thirds of the time over the past two decades.
''People are looking for a solution,'' said Denise Morris, executive director and president of the Alaska Native Justice Center, one of the committee groups. ''I think it is very important everyone is at the table.''
The safety issue in Anchorage has become acute. In the past 15 months, six women have been murdered, five of them Native, and police say the non-Native victim easily could have been mistaken for Native. All of the victims were either homeless or substance abusers, police said.
The committee is comprised of Anchorage police and about a dozen other groups, including some of the state's leading Native organizations. Its focus is on public education and prevention; and it has launched several initiatives, including educating rural Natives about the dangers of urban areas, placing signs about sexual assault in bar bathrooms and handing out wallet-sized cards with personal safety advice.
''I think it is having an impact because the Native community and law enforcement had never worked together before. This is creating ... a bridge,'' said committee Chairwoman Cindy Pennington, an Alutiiq and former police officer.
Native women account for only 3.5 percent of Anchorage's population, but constitute about 45 percent of reported rape victims, according to police.
''In the past, we have just looked at the police and said, 'Why aren't you doing anything,?''' said Karen Bitzer, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape (STAR). ''For once we are all working together.''
It's unclear whether the committee's work is having an effect. The numbers looked promising in 1999 when there were 161 reported rapes in Anchorage and the percentage of Native women fell to 31 percent. So far this year, there have been 143 reported rapes but the percentage has increased to 42 percent.
Committee members are concerned that rape not be viewed as a Native problem. The committee has identified certain risk factors, such as drinking alcohol, using drugs and being alone, that place any woman at higher risk of being raped.
Lt. Tom Nelson, police commander for the Central District which covers the downtown and its many drinking establishments, said one of the first steps was to get the Downtown Bar Association involved.
Bartenders have been trained to try and spot predators, Nelson said. They look for a man who is buying a woman drinks but not drinking himself, or a man who follows a woman from bar to bar, or one who is trying to get a woman away from her friends.
Warning signs were placed in bar restrooms and public transportation facilities to alert men and women about sexual assault.
''If you think that waking up with a hangover is bad, imagine waking up as a rapist,'' one of the men's room signs reads. Another says, ''There are a million ways for a woman to say 'No.' Are you listening?''
''Just because you have been drinking does not mean you deserve to be sexually assaulted,'' reads a sign for women. Another reads, ''Sexual assault is never the victim's fault.''
The committee also tried to pinpoint what was placing Native women in particular at risk. It learned that Native women from rural Alaska who come into the city for conventions and festivals are more vulnerable because they don't have transportation and accept rides from strangers.
In the villages, every one relies on each other to get around.
''They think nothing of flagging someone down for a ride,'' Bitzer said.
To combat that, volunteers accompanied by plainclothes police officers have taken up positions on street corners during high-risk periods and hand out cards with personal safety tips and instructions on how to get help. Free rides are offered.
''Coming from rural areas, you are more trusting, more open. The likelihood of something happening increases,'' Nelson said. ''We do have predators out there that prey on individuals that are more trusting.''
Police have been trying to clear out tent camps in various parts of the city where people gather to drink and use drugs, and where things frequently turn violent, Nelson said.
Pennington is not discouraged that the percentage of Native women reporting they've been sexually assaulted is approaching pre-committee levels. Native women may feel more comfortable reporting rape given the committee's work, she said.
''It had always been hush-hush,'' Pennington said. ''For once, people are talking about it.''
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