Forum highlights shortage of rural police

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Rural villages lack adequate police and judicial service, according to speakers at a forum organized by the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

Village residents said police are underfunded, inadequately trained and sometimes culturally insensitive.

Dozens of speakers called for more officers, stronger support of tribal courts and quicker response from Alaska State Troopers when major crimes occur.

''We're no different than the urban areas, said Sharon Clark of Clark's Point, a Bristol Bay village of about 66.

''We deserve justice in our smaller communities.''

Panelists, including most members of the newly formed Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, also heard some successes, highlights and advice for improvement during the meeting Sept. 29.

But a common theme among about three dozen rural residents who testified at the summit, sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives and Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, was the need to beef up the village public safety officer program.

In many communities, the VPSO acts as a deterrent to crime.

The state has never funded the program well enough to put an officer in every village. There are currently about 65.

As a health aide visiting villages near Nome, Jenny Lee said, the presence of a VPSO has made her job easier by making villages safer and more stable. Many who testified said the state should fully fund the program and hire officers in every community.

Several VPSOs said they are on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which contributes to the community's well-being. Dan Harrelson of White Mountain said he also teaches boating safety and enforces helmet laws, resulting in fewer accidental injuries. Enforcing curfew can improve student test scores, he said.

Others said that in villages with no officer, small crimes such as vandalism and truancy increase. Abused wives may have no one to turn to for protection. School counselors and village officials might have to respond to suicides or sexual assaults, speakers said.

The new commission, which U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens created last January, has been asked to consider new ways of improving rural law enforcement and justice, including laws and forms of government.

State officials have said, however, that funding increases are unlikely.

The state's rural law enforcement program relies on troopers posted in hub communities such as Bethel and Dillingham to respond to serious crimes.

Many complained that trooper response often is slowed by the troopers' stretched resources, weather or what some rural residents view as indifference.

The rural justice commission holds its first official meeting this week, at which it will set out a plan for the coming year, said federal co-chairman and U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess.

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