Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: 'The challenge is very great': Public safety a major topic at AFN

Discussion of public safety issues drove the dialogue during the afternoon portion of the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention’s opening day.

The first of two panels dedicated to public safety in Alaska Native communities was preceded by remarks from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, introduced by AFN President Julie Kitka.

Barr came to Alaska this spring and, after visiting several communities, issued a federal declaration of emergency for rural public safety.

“The challenge is very great. I understand that there are still very serious problems there. I am looking forward to working with you and the organization and everybody who is interested in enhancing public safety in Alaska Native villages. Thank you for having me,” Barr said.

Sullivan thanked Barr for visiting Alaska and his work with public safety after the fact.

“I think we need to get back to this goal that a number of us put forward years ago that every community in Alaska that wants law enforcement should have that,” Sullivan said, adding that this is something that’s normal in the Lower 48, something every American expects, but something that isn't in rural Alaska.

Murkowski also extended her thanks to Barr for coming to the state.

“We saw that there was an opportunity to present the issues, to talk about statistics, to share the stories, for the attorney general to be on the ground to hear personally from individuals, to see the conditions themselves,” she said.

However, in closing Murkowski touched on a statement Barr made that he does not want to see women feeling like they have to move to the city to be safe, saying she thinks “we, the state, now are wrestling with the reality that where Native women who come to the cities to be safe are equally threatened in our cities.”

She received applause for her statement.

VPSO program funding

On the convention floor, delegates addressed the panel on a number of issues, some revolving around the Village Public Safety Officer program.

Adeline “Aucha” Kameroff, public safety director of the Northwest Arctic Borough, addressed Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price and asked, if public safety is a priority, why one of the biggest duties she is tasked with is to apply for VPSO grants while other state agencies don’t have to do the same to have law enforcement.

“So what’s wrong with this picture, commissioner?” she asked.

Price responded with an explanation of how the program is funded and why the grant applications exist.

“What’s wrong with the picture is, I believe, that the system that our state has in place, the mechanism that we have in place that says the legislative body must appropriate funds to the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Public Safety must hand those funds out could be evaluated,” she said.

Price noted that she agrees with Kameroff that it’s a “burdensome process” that makes it difficult for employers to secure the funds they need to hire VPSOs. Regional nonprofit Alaska Native organizations, such as Tanana Chiefs Conference in the Interior, hire the VPSOs.

Other panelists included Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, who are co-chairs of the Alaska Legislative Public Safety Workgroup, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska Bryan Schroder.

Kopp discussed the program as well during a conversation about tribal jurisdiction.

“Our VPSOs and our state troopers have been stretched very thin trying to provide a good public safety result for our state,” he said, adding that we need tribal partners in Alaska and more authority for tribes to take responsibility through a tribal court system and law enforcement.

He said this does not mean he wants federal funding to back away if the state begins to contribute more.

Women and children

The second panel was dedicated to preventing violence against Alaska Native women and children.

Panelists, consisting of Schroder; Jeffery Peterson, special agent in charge of the Anchorage Field Office for the FBI; Col. Barry Wilson, director of the Alaska State Troopers; "Anna’s Alaska" producer Anna Sattler David; and Kyle Hopkins, a reporter with the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica.

Peterson touched on some trouble with definitions of a missing person as well as efforts to address the numbers of people reported missing in databases.

“Again in partnership with the state, we are working on, and probably halfway through, a project to scrub the databases as to who is missing, who is not, what defines a missing person, and what kind of numbers can we agree on,” he said.

For example, Peterson said, if a fishing vessel sinks and bodies are not recovered, those people are counted as missing, which, he noted, is not the same as a woman vanishing from her home.

In an emotional moment, David shared her own story about encountering issues with law enforcement while her rape case remained unsolved before thanking former Gov. Bill Walker for freeing up funding to have a backlog of rape evidence kits tested.

“Beyond that, even though my personal case, I feel like the state troopers did a horrible job, the department in Soldotna did a horrible job of communicating with me — closing the case without letting me know what happened. Bottom line is I started my career at the state troopers and DMV in Bethel and I loved them,” she said.

David called for communities to address issues not only of suicide and addiction but also the difficult topic of child sexual abuse. To an outpouring of applause she said “No more” to electing officials with criminal behavior, to bootleggers, abusers and various other types of criminal behavior.

"Every single one of us in the viewing audience, every single one of us here, even if we make a difference to one human being, we have to do this," she said, adding that the community can say "no" and can work with law enforcement to help address issues.

David was largely applauded and thanked for her comments by delegates who approached the mic afterward.

Cynthia Erickson began her comments by thanking David before she called for grassroots efforts to address issues within the community.

“I deal with children every day that are hurting, and we need to all work together,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re white, black, Chinese, tribal — whatever it is, we have to start.”

By:  Kyrie Long
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner