Tundra Drums: Village police funding to get boost in tribal law act, Murkowski says

The Senate passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, according to a written statement from the office of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The legislation, which passed the Senate Wednesday night by unanimous consent, would improve law enforcement and the justice system on Indian reservations in the Lower 48.

Murkowski, a senior member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, included several provisions in the bill that would address the lack of law enforcement in Alaska's rural communities.

One of her amendments would allow the State of Alaska, tribes, and tribal organizations in Alaska that employ village public safety officers (VPSOs) to fund VPSO positions with Community Oriented Policing grants, also known as COPS grants, and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants, or SAFER grants. Currently, VPSO positions are funded by the State of Alaska or through congressional earmarks.

"VPSOs are truly the first responders in the Last Frontier. The VPSOs are the police department, the fire department, the EMS, and search and rescue all rolled into one. It is only fair that rural Alaska Native communities have the same access to public safety funds that communities and cities across America have."

Additionally, Murkowski's VPSO proposal would allow all VPSOs and Tribal Law Enforcement Officers in Alaska the option to receive training at the Indian Policy Academy of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in New Mexico.

"Roughly 90 communities in rural Alaska do not have law enforcement," Murkowski said. "I regard it as a fundamental right that Native people should feel safe in their villages. It is my hope that this bill will make rural communities safer."

While the presence of law enforcement is one side of the equation, the ability to collect criminal evidence is another.

A 2008 Amnesty International report, "Maze of Injustice," cast light on how difficult it is to collect and secure the forensic evidence necessary to support sexual assault prosecutions in Native communities around the country, including Alaska, the written statement said.

A shortage of rape kits, a shortage of trained personnel to collect the evidence and shortcomings in the chain of custody process were examples highlighted in the report.

Murkowski included an amendment that asks the Government Accountability Office to look further into the evidence collection issue.

The amendment directs the GAO to evaluate the ability of Indian Health Service facilities on remote Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages to handle the collection of forensic evidence and provide recommendations for improvement.

"In order for Congress to provide adequate resources, we must have documentation," Murkowski said in the statement.

The bill (S.797) was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Murkowski co-sponsored the legislation.

The bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.

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Source: By Alaska Newspapers Staff. Published June 24, 2010