OJP Works to Ease Alaska Public Safety Crisis

July 29, 2019
Courtesy of Katharine T. Sullivan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katharine T. Sullivan, Office of Justice Programs

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katharine T. Sullivan, Office of Justice Programs

Last month, the Attorney General and I traveled together to Alaska to see firsthand the state of law enforcement in some of America’s remotest communities. In Anchorage, Galena, Bethel, and Napaskiak, we met with state and local law enforcement officers, elected officials, Alaska Native leaders, native youth, crime survivors, crime lab technicians, and many other experts on these issues. We heard many moving stories of people left to deal with dangerous and traumatic situations without enough support from trained law enforcement. Remote environments and unpredictable weather conditions exacerbate the high rates of crimes as well as access to services for victims. We believe more can be done. 

Law enforcement officers in Alaska do heroic work every day, and this work is all the more heroic because it is done in the face of serious challenges. The Federal Government needs to do its part to strengthen crime prevention, public safety and other needed services.

Rural communities all across America face a number of unique problems that directly affect law enforcement. But nowhere in this country are there communities that are more rural or more remote than in Alaska—where many villages are accessible only by boat or even plane—and nowhere are these problems more acute.

According to one estimate, one-third of Alaska villages have no local law enforcement personnel at all. Other estimates place that number even higher. Alaska has roughly one state trooper for every 1,000 square miles of land.

In Galena, Alaska, Attorney General Barr met with Alaska Native youth and elders representing over 200 tribes in Alaska.

In Galena, Alaska, Attorney General Barr met with Alaska Native youth and elders representing over 200 tribes in Alaska.

By geography, Alaska is our biggest state and the largest federal district in the country by far. Yet, only about federal 100 agents work alongside about two dozen federal prosecutors across the entire state. In Alaska’s interior, only about 470 law enforcement officers are responsible for protecting more than 700,000 people living across half a million square miles of terrain.

These stretched resources are all the more concerning in light of Alaska’s persistently high rate of violent crime. According to the FBI’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report, Alaska’s violent crime rate is more than double the national average.

Sadly, this violence is especially prevalent among Alaska’s 229 tribes. According to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native adults have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, and more than half of all American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence from an intimate partner.

Alaska Native people have proud and diverse cultures and traditions, but they need and deserve public safety just like every other American. Unfortunately for many who live in Alaska’s remote villages, this is an unmet need.

That’s why in June, following the historic trip to Alaska by Attorney General Barr, the Department of Justice announced that $6 million in emergency federal funds will be made available to support law enforcement in Alaska Native villages, along with a series of additional measures to increase capacity, personnel, grants, and training for tribal, state, and federal law enforcement and victim services. These measures will not solve Alaska’s violent crime problem, but they are a meaningful step forward. They will enhance a number of important actions already taken by the Justice Department to help the people of Alaska in recent years. In fiscal year 2018 alone, the Department awarded $17.9 million in public safety grants to Alaska Native communities. Even more funding will soon be available for Alaska Native communities to address violence against women, to fund tribal courts and police, and to deliver much needed services to crime victims.

The Department of Justice also recently announced that it would bring the Public Safety Partnership to Anchorage. This is a successful program that directs federal law enforcement resources to the cities where they can have the greatest impact. Several participating cities have already seen significant reductions in violent crime over the past two years, and we expect that it will have the same impact in Anchorage.

These are important steps, but we know that there is much work left to do. But after our journey and discussions last month, we are more determined than ever to work together to ensure that the Alaska Native people have the safety and security that they deserve.

Topic(s): 
Indian Country Law and Justice

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Updated July 29, 2019