Does the chronic shortage of public safety officers in dozens of communities in rural Alaska mean the state discriminates against Alaska Natives? Villagers say yes, the state says no. Now it’s up to the Alaska Supreme Court to decide.
The high court heard arguments Tuesday in a case filed four years ago in Dillingham, but whose roots go back far earlier, that said the state has historically short-changed villages in the realm of public safety. They claimed that village officers are underpaid, undertrained and underarmed compared with their Alaska State Trooper counterparts.
They failed to persuade Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason, however. She agreed that urban and rural communities receive different levels of service, “but this court finds these discrepancies are due principally to ... geographic isolation, weather conditions and transportation difficulties ... and not to an unconstitutional under-allocation of trooper resources” to the Bush.
Even as funding and policy changes in the rural justice system are looming at both the state and federal levels, the 1999 lawsuit pressed toward conclusion Tuesday. In his appeal, attorney Lawrence Aschenbrenner of the Native American Rights Fund argued that police services in rural Alaska are racially based and numerically inferior to what urban Alaskans receive.
“The state intended to establish a lower standard of police protection for Native villages” when it created the village public safety officer, or VPSO, program as an offshoot of the Alaska State Troopers in the late 1970s, he said.
The VPSO program was designed to put officers in rural villages who could provide first response before troopers could arrive from the nearest hub community, such as Bethel or Kotzebue. VPSOs are trained by the troopers but do not carry weapons. They are on call around the clock and are often called upon to subdue friends, neighbors and relatives who disrupt the peace, leading to high turnover rates in many villages.
But the program has never extended to all of Alaska’s off-road villages. When the VPSO suit was filed, only 75 of 165 off-road communities had officers. The number fell even lower this year when Gov. Frank Murkowski eliminated funding for 15 other positions.
Aschenbrenner turned around Gleason’s reasoning, saying that the geographic, weather and distance limitations inherent in rural Alaska are reasons to expand the public safety program, not to justify its minimal funding. Various Legislatures and administrations have agreed, he pointed out, when they sought more money for the VPSO program.
State assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin countered Aschenbrenner’s claims that public safety is shorted in the Bush. Between the allocation of troopers around Alaska and how much time the troopers and VPSOs spend on duty, he said, “you find no disparity. What you find is the off-road communities receive slightly more time than the road communities. It’s even.”
Baldwin downplayed Aschenbrenner’s contention that the VPSO program was racially based because numerous state officials had said it was for “Native” communities. Officials may have used that term, Baldwin said, but as a descriptor. “It’s not racial at all, it’s political,” he said, and he asked the justices to “put aside this claim of racial discrimination once and for all.
”It’s true that the state can’t afford to put troopers in every village, Baldwin said. And if there aren’t enough troopers to go around, it makes sense to put them in the regional hubs, not spread them among the villages. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to determine where to put troopers and VPSOs, he said.
The justices are expected to take several months to decide the case.
In the meantime, the rural justice system is in line for major changes. Last week, Sen. Ted Stevens announced a plan to eliminate federal funding for tribal courts and police officers and redirect the funds to the state. The bill, which still must pass Congress and President Bush, would give Alaska $2 million for the VPSO program.
On Tuesday, Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske said the Murkowski administration is planning a massive overhaul of the state’s rural police program."
We’re not locked into the VPSO program as a vehicle for those services," he said. “The primary issue is the number of communities we have to consider.”
At least 100 villages have lost or never had VPSOs, and the state’s ongoing budget crisis is likely to require additional cuts in the future, Tandeske said.
“We’re redefining and recreating the rural justice system,” he said. “If it turns out VPSOs are the best thing, fine. But something has to change to be able to provide more service to more communities, and the answer can’t be ‘if only we had more money.’ “Possible areas of reform include putting one officer in a cluster of villages or trimming administrative costs. Currently the VPSO program is administered by nine regional Native nonprofit agencies. “Seems like a lot of overhead,” Tandeske said.
The administration hopes to have a new village public safety program in place next year, he said, adding that he doubts the upcoming Supreme Court decision will affect it.
”We’re operating under the assumption that we’re going to rethink how we do business and get the most services for the money that we can provide.”