The state of Alaska did not deliberately create a race-based law enforcement system in the Bush and does not now allocate police resources to discriminate against predominantly Native communities, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The differences in the availability and quality of law enforcement between rural and urban Alaska are reasonably based on the problems encountered in serving communities on the road system and those off the road system, the court concluded in a unanimous decision.
The court rejected claims by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, the Alaska Native Justice Center and 10 rural villages that a segregated system “for providing law enforcement services has existed in Alaska since the 1800s.” The villages argued that the current Village Public Safety Officer program is a direct descendant of territorial race-based systems and is used to achieve a continuing objective of denying equal protection to Native villages.
VPSOs are unarmed peace officers who are supervised by the Alaska State Troopers, but are employees of regional nonprofits. Most are Native and work in off-road villages where no regular troopers are assigned. They are less rigorously trained and paid less than sworn troopers. The challenging villages claimed they constitute a “dual system” used to substitute for real troopers, which the state would have to assign if VPSOs were not available.
The court disagreed.
VPSOs are a “supplemental” service, the court said. “That VPSO services were mainly available in off-road communities that were predominantly Alaska Native does not establish that the allocation of trooper services was racially motivated,” wrote Justice Robert Eastaugh for the court. “It simply reflects demographic reality in Alaska.”
A press release from Attorney General David Marquez’s office welcomed the decision, but Natalie Landreth, a staff attorney for Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage and one of two attorneys who argued against the state, said her side was “profoundly disappointed.”
The people in Alaska’s villages “do live under a separate and unequal rural public safety system, and I guess this decision means that system is going to continue,” she said.
But the issue was not whether villagers get as much police protection as urban Alaskans, or even if all villages get the same protection. Those are legislative and administrative questions, the courts have said. The issue was whether the state was using race as a basis for allocating police resources among "similarly situated" communities.
They are not, the court concluded.
“Instead, the evidence permits a logical conclusion that the state developed its system of rural law enforcement based on financial and geographical constraints, and an evaluation of crime rates in those locations,” the court said.
Mike Williams, a lifelong resident of the Kuskokwim River village of Akiak and one of the plaintiffs, suggested the outcome might have been different “if those justices would take some time off and live in Akiak or in a place where there’s no police. Then they would realize what we live with.”
The state should be required to provide better protection than is currently available, Williams said. Only a portion of rural communities have VPSOs, and those are underpaid, he said.
The suicide last week of the VPSO in Russian Mission illustrated the depth of the funding issue, Williams added. “He was paying for his own heat and phones. How can police officers live like that? They won’t do it in Anchorage.”
Friday’s decision, which upheld a lower court decision, may be the end of this case, but it is not the end of the issue. A commission of rural residents, mandated by federal law, has been meeting over the past year and is expected to make recommendations soon to Congress and the Alaska Legislature on improving village public safety.
In the meantime, the plaintiffs are considering their legal options, Landreth said. They include seeking another state Supreme Court review, or asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it.