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Compass: State making actual progress with tribal communities

In May every year we honor the memories of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty. This year has been particularly poignant given the recent deaths of the two troopers in Tanana.

In my 30 years of service in law enforcement, I connected with the communities that I helped to protect, as well as with my fellow officers. These local police officers, village public safety officers and troopers all play a vital role in protecting our great and diverse state. And their good works should not be diminished.

Following the tragedy in Tanana several weeks ago, I was disappointed that several writers and commentators chose to use the senseless deaths of those two troopers to bolster their argument for the expansion of Indian Country and the creation of tribal criminal jurisdiction in Alaska. One writer even speculated that the troopers might not have died if they had been "local" officers.

Do we forget so quickly? Only a year ago a local officer, Thomas Madole, was shot and killed in Manokotak. In 2010, two local police officers suffered similar deaths in Hoonah. All of these officers called the communities they protected "home." Not only was there no factual basis for the writer's assertions, but these troopers should be honored -- not opportunistically linked to a hot button political issue.

The issue of the expansion of Indian Country and the creation of tribal criminal jurisdiction in Alaska has been recently agitated by the Indian Law and Order Commission. I met with the commission when it was preparing its report. I was disappointed that in the end the commission failed to acknowledge, or chose to ignore, the extensive efforts by the state and by law enforcement on multiple levels to address issues of public safety in our rural communities.

The sharp tone of the commission's report, and its widespread condemnation of Alaska, marginalizes law enforcement's tireless efforts to make communities across the state safer. Since the inception of the Choose Respect initiative, the number of funded VPSO positions has more than doubled, and the state continues to spend more resources to ensure that any community wanting local law enforcement is able to have it.

While I do agree that much more can be done, I believe Gov. Parnell and his administration are headed in the right direction. Agreements are underway to collaborate with tribal courts in handling local misdemeanor-level crimes that undermine public safety in these communities. There is still a long road to travel -- but the state is moving forward, and it deserves credit for that commitment.

Instead of latching on to the polarizing issue of Indian Country, the state and tribes should focus on what can be done right now. Waiting for Congress to act is a false promise. The "Balkanization" of Alaska by creating scattered pockets of tribal criminal jurisdiction through the formation of Indian Country involving Alaska's 229 federally-recognized tribes will not solve the complex public safety issues that Alaska Natives face in both rural and urban Alaska.

The problem is not the state's law enforcement system, but the lack of resources and the isolated nature of many of our communities. But these challenges are not insurmountable. By working together we can improve the safety of all Alaskans.

That requires the state to affirm its recognition of a tribe's sovereignty over the management of its own tribal members, such as child custody and other domestic issues involving tribal members. It requires that the state deepen its partnerships with tribes to come up with more collaborative solutions. And it requires tribes to be willing to partner and collaborate with the state to enforce a common set of laws and rights that apply to all Alaskans. I believe these partnerships are underway. Invoking hot button topics like "Indian Country" and "tribal sovereignty" to create new systems of law enforcement will only stall the ongoing collaborative efforts. So let's not lose sight of the goal that we all believe in -- people should not live in fear or under the threat of harm, whether it be a rural community or one of our urban hubs.

And the next time you see a uniformed officer, say "Thank you" for what they put on the line for you, each and every day.

Joe Masters began his service in law enforcement as a VPSO in 1983, was a police officer in Unalaska, followed by a 20-year career with the Alaska State Troopers, culminating in his service as Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety for five years until retirement in 2013. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch/Anchorage Daily News, which welcome a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.



By JOE MASTERS