State seeks dismisal of rural public safety lawsuit

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A state attorney has asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss a lawsuit by rural communities and Alaska Native groups that alleges state discrimination through inadequate police protection in villages.

The state didn't intentionally discriminate against Alaska Natives but has tried hard to provide protection in remote communities, Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general, said in a hearing Friday.

Guaneli and the plaintiffs offered widely different visions of safety in Alaska's rural communities and the state's job of protecting them.

The hearing was the latest step in a 1999 lawsuit in which rural communities, Native organizations and individuals sued to block the state from spending federal money on law enforcement until it submits a plan to improve services in Native villages.

According to the lawsuit, 165 off-road communities in Alaska are predominantly Native and either don't have any local police protection at all or are patrolled by village police officers or village public safety officers who are inadequately trained, poorly paid and ill-equipped.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason said she would try to decide on the state's motion for summary judgment by mid-January. If there is a trial, it would be held in early April, Gleason said.

The case is central to a continuing debate about the level of state services in Alaska's rural communities compared with urban areas, whether for education, public safety, or subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

The lawsuit alleges that rural communities had an effective law enforcement system in the past that the state replaced with an inadequate system, placing rural residents in greater danger.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Lawrence Aschenbrenner, said he wasn't expecting the same police protection as the state's on-road communities. But state and federal equal protection laws require that a racial minority not get a substantially lower level of police protection than white citizens.

Aschenbrenner suggested having a certified policeman readily available to get to each of the communities in a timely manner. He said neighboring communities might share an officer.

Guaneli cited statistics to show that the state was making the same or a greater effort for the rural, off-road communities than it was for others. He noted one California Institute of Technology professor's analysis that showed troopers spent about 35 minutes per person in the 165 villages at issue while spending about 33 minutes per capita in other areas. The study included data from 1995 to 2000.

That's not necessarily time spent in those villages, but active time spent on village cases, the Anchorage Daily News reported. That could include flight time or time in court.

According to a 1995 study from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, about 53 percent of rural Alaskans said they were never worried about violent crime, while only about 20 percent of people in Anchorage felt that way.

Aschenbrenner offered a different vision: In communities on the state's road system, state troopers handle felonies and misdemeanor complaints. They also make security checks on homes.

In the off-road communities, troopers rarely patrol. They handle serious felonies but virtually no misdemeanors. They often take hours or even days to reach a crime scene due to weather or a lack of runway lights, while troopers can reach on-road crime scenes in 45 minutes.

Troopers provide full police protection to all on-road communities, Aschenbrenner said. Meanwhile, there are 73 off-road communities with no local police protection at all, he said.

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