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PoV: AK’s leadership matters — more than ever


I followed with great interest the recent three-day Alaskan visit by our United States Attorney General William Barr. Our U.S. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski were integral in the invitation and tours.

The only problem is the underlying issues weren’t really addressed. Alaska’s drug, violence and crime issues won’t be going away anytime soon. The foundational problem is oversight and purview.  

AG Barr’s invocation of an emergency status to resolve village crime and drug abuse is shortsighted. The follow-through and implementation of support by our federal government will be illusory and bare bones. Past governors, and state and federal legislators, have been aware of our growing domestic violence rates, incest and child abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse for many years, yet acted neither responsibly nor provided basic levels of service to curb the problems. The inaction, or apathy, came in concert with millions of dollars wasted in exorbitant capital and operating budgets.  

Aside from un-credentialed commissioners, Alaska State Trooper posts are being closed, village protections and coverage are being eliminated, and precise rehabilitation and drug/alcohol education efforts are overshadowed by management-top-heavy nonprofits and Native corporations. Suicide, drug addiction and domestic violence rates are soaring in our state.

Gov. Dunleavy has introduced Senate Bill 60 making the governor the commander of the Alaska Self Defense Force ( “Alaska Militia”).  The wording of one particular section is alarming.  26.05.100(d) states “The primary mission of the Alaska State Defense Force is to serve as a constabulary with state police powers. An Alaska State Defense Force member shall act as a peace officer and may use personal arms when called to state active duty under AS 26.05.070.” In this subsection, “constabulary” means an armed police force organized on military lines, but distinct from the regular Army.  

Gov. Dunleavy has requested a draft of operation plans to dispatch militia law enforcement duty in rural villages. Alaska could have a militia of private citizens overseeing law enforcement in remote villages. Public Safety Commissioner Price has agreed to issue a special police “commission” to members of the militia and issue firearms from Public Safety inventory.  Price has the authority to decide if they have training to meet the requirements of the law. The statute says commissions may be issued to those who have received training approved by the commissioner. That used to require basic APSC training.    

The lack of diligence in providing for public safety as a first priority and moral responsibility provided by laws, of both the state of Alaska and the federal government, is the result of a breakdown in management that borders on malfeasance.

A much larger problem — that inhibits providing a trained force of adequate strength to the rural areas — is and always has been one of funding. Since the federal government has designated over 200 rural communities as "tribal villages," it should follow through with financial support to the Department of Public Safety to ensure adequate staffing, training and oversight to the VPSO program.

The state has no authority, nor should they want to have any control over, tribal issues. Tribes are federal entities.

Tribal police authority is only extended over tribal members and does not include authority over non-Natives. Alaska's tribes and the one designated reservation are creations of congressional acts as opposed to the creation of tribes and reservations in the Lower 48 created by actual treaties between "nations.” Alaska's reserves are non-treaty.  

Gov. Dunleavy should invite the appropriate representative from the Department of Interior (BIA), Department of Justice (FBI), and U.S. attorneys, and appropriate State of Alaska staff, all of whom can make decisions and commitments to perform the duties and legal responsibilities as required by law, to work with Alaskans. The government officials should work with and exchange counsel with a new, expedited public safety task force directed to review, assess and determine solutions. The task force should include retired/former law enforcement, rural village elders, health care professionals, and perhaps even Alaska Native corporations and private-sector non-Native representation. But with a date-certain reporting period, comparable to an exigent military engagement with outcomes precise, planned and achievable.

Richard L. Burton is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety (Retired).