But the number of VPSOs appears to be at an all-time low, with just 42 officers statewide this year, compared with more than in On the same day the federal government announced millions in emergency funds for Alaska rural police in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy revealed he had vetoed millions from the VPSO program, saying the money was for vacant positions. Bahnke, the head of the Nome-based nonprofit that employs VPSOs, said that only five of the 15 communities in her region have VPSOs and called on the state to spend unused salaries on equipment, housing and other amenities that would make it easier to recruit new officers.
Alaska Native leaders once sued to force the state to provide armed, trained police in villages, but their lawsuit failed in state court. They tend to be younger, paid less and have less training than traditional police. VPOs, such as those in Stebbins, are mainly expected to enforce city laws such as curfews and misdemeanors.
In practice, however, they must sometimes handle life-and-death encounters such as standoffs and suicide threats. TPOs perform a similar role but are employed by federally recognized tribes and are not regulated by the state. Many villages have no housing for police, no secure jail cells or no public safety building. When Barr visited the state in May to see the problem for himself, he called the lack of services one of the most pressing public safety needs in the United States.
Our review also found that villages have routinely ignored — or said they were unaware of — laws that require training and bar people with certain criminal records from being hired. Last year, the Daily News reported on isolated cases of people with criminal records working as police in remote Alaska villages. That story focused on a case at the edge of the Arctic Circle, in the tundra village of Selawik, where the city employed an officer who had been convicted of bootlegging and faced a pending charge of giving alcohol to a minor when he sexually assaulted an underage girl.
The officer pleaded guilty to rape and furnishing alcohol to a minor in that case but was not charged in her death. He has not responded to numerous interview requests. What happened in Selawik is far from an isolated example, our comprehensive examination shows. Between January and May, ProPublica and the Daily News identified 50 city and tribal governments that employ officers.
Some would not provide names, but of the officers identified, more than 42 have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to assault or another crime, most often domestic violence, that is typically a bar to working in law enforcement.
Leaders in some communities, including Stebbins, say they have little alternative but to hire anyone they can. In Mountain Village, population , one recent VPO awaits trial on charges of stealing from a murder scene.
Court records show five other recent VPOs in the same Yukon River community are awaiting hearings or have admitted to criminal charges including four counts of disorderly conduct, three counts of assault, two cases of neglect, two cases of drunken driving, two charges of harassment and three cases of domestic violence. Along the Norton Sound coast, the city of Shaktoolik in May hired a VPO who has pleaded guilty to five assault charges within the past 10 years.
Among those hired as TPOs in the fishing villages of Kasigluk and Tuntutuliak, located among the vast web of river-fed lakes in western Alaska, are registered sex offenders who admitted to abuse of a minor or attempted sexual abuse of a minor.
The Kasigluk tribal administrator said he was directed by the tribal council not to talk to a reporter about the issue. In Tuntutuliak, Administrator Deanna White said the village council was willing to hire an offender on a part-time basis because of constant turnover and a lack of applicants in the high-stress job. In the Kuskokwim Bay village of Kwigillingok , a year-old man worked as a tribal police officer while subject to a long-term domestic violence restraining order. He was indicted in February on charges of sexually abusing an year-old and is awaiting trial in a Bethel jail.
He has pleaded not guilty. Smith was picked to patrol the village despite a complaint filed two years earlier by a young mother whose 3-year-old daughter told her that her bottom hurt. The girl later confided that Smith had touched her there, according to an application for a sexual assault restraining order filed in Bethel court. He had the power to place his neighbors in custody and to hold them against their will if he declared them to be drunk or disorderly. In October, the Alaska State Troopers arrested Smith on charges of having sex with a different underage girl , and he has been in custody since.
Today he is awaiting trial in that case and in another, in which he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in police custody. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases. In Stebbins, Louise Martin said she knows all too well the toll that officers with criminal records can take on a town.
She recently filed a restraining order against a current city police officer, accusing the man of threatening her in person and through Facebook messages in which he said he would beat her up. Prior to his hire, the officer had been convicted of domestic violence and bootlegging.
An initial order was granted but a longer-term one was denied because Martin did not participate at a hearing. The city offers no benefits to part-time officers who walk into life-and-death emergencies. They are untrained and unarmed, their only equipment a cellphone and a pair of handcuffs.
The police department, like most homes, has no flush toilets or running water. Next to hauling waste, residents say being a cop is one of the worst jobs in town. In , the mayor of Stebbins was shot in the face as part of a robbery scheme involving a year-old man who had been working as a VPO despite jail sentences for assault and animal cruelty. Each recruit is subject to criminal background checks, drug tests and polygraphs.
People who were charged with assault. The victim in that case said Kitsick had threatened to kill him, his 6-year-old child and his wife and vowed to burn down his house. The Kotlik officer said that he could smell gasoline around his home and that he waited out the night with a gun handy, afraid for his life. Reached by phone, Kitsick denied that he threatened the police officer but admitted to attacking him. I spit on him and kicked him. That was it. He asked not to be identified because his wife still works in the region. He, too, was a VPO with a criminal record, he said.
The city of Kotlik recruited him despite an assault charge that should have prevented him from being hired under state law. Stebbins city records show Kitsick stopped working as a police officer on May 28 after two years on patrol. He sometimes tried looking for different work with better pay and more hours, he said, but jobs are scarce in the village.
Troopers accused him of punching a woman in the face and punching fellow Stebbins VPO John Aluska in two separate incidents. He has pleaded not guilty to both. While she spoke, Snowball cleaned a gleaming chum salmon, hauled moments earlier from the Bering Sea. As a health aide, Snowball said she partners with VPOs. She would quit the clinic. A few hours after the health aide finished cutting fish along the foaming shoreline, Aluska began the midnight to 4 a. Rain beaded on his four-wheeler, a Honda shared by the entire police force. Aluska circled the village in a wide loop.
There are no stop lights and no paved roads in Stebbins. Most homes rest on stilts; red foxes and berry bushes hide in the knee-high grass. All groceries and vehicles arrive by plane or barge, and trailer-sized shipping containers in primary colors dot the yards. Aluska has lived here all his life. A boy in a hoodie shuffled his feet, walking with exaggerated slowness.
The Honda engine clicked and popped as he turned off the ignition. The real trouble usually starts later. Everyone knows when the VPOs go off duty.
If someone is driving drunk, getting in fights or becomes a danger to themselves, they are held in one of three cells in the city jail. The building used to be a library, but it was converted when someone broke the fuel line at the old jail house, soaking the building in heating oil. Aluska likes the new jailhouse. No one has broken out yet. The year-old said he got into his share of trouble when he was younger. Making homebrew. KTVA reported on one such individual who reoffended once he moved to Alaska. Generally, Peters said sex offenders are doing everything they can to stay in compliance and live their lives successfully in the state.
According to Peters, the database of sex offenders in Alaska is the main driver to help law enforcement agencies in the state track down non-compliant individuals. Peters said five employees with the Department of Public Safety handle the paperwork and details needed to update the sex offender registry. And on top of that, Dunleavy included stipulations in his recently proposed budget that will directly impact existing law enforcement positions.