Crime & Courts

Gov. Dunleavy proposes initiative to boost rural Alaska law enforcement and strengthen penalties for domestic violence and sexual assault

Facing chronically high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska, and criticism about a lack of law enforcement in rural areas, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a broad initiative on Tuesday to improve public safety in the state.

The effort will cost millions of dollars and will also seek to address other longstanding issues in Alaska, including missing and murdered Indigenous people, homelessness, the foster care system and sex trafficking, Dunleavy said Tuesday.

While most categories of crime in Alaska have fallen, including property crimes, incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault have continued to devastate families, the governor said, speaking alongside representatives of nonprofit organizations who fight those and other issues.

The plan, called People First Initiative, will seek to strengthen penalties for crimes related to domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking. Working with tribes, municipalities, nonprofit groups and others, it will seek to increase data on the problems and improve services for victims of such crimes, according to Dunleavy and other officials.

Dunleavy, facing reelection next year, said the plan is a “moral imperative,” not a political issue.

“We know we don’t have a choice,” Dunleavy said.

At least one opponent and a Democratic lawmaker quickly criticized his approach as belated and contrary to his vetoes of funding for foster care services earlier this summer.

As part of the plan, the administration will also seek higher pay for village public safety officers, often the first line of law enforcement in many villages, in an effort to roughly double their numbers from 55, currently at some of their lowest levels in history.

The governor announced the initiative the day after the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica published an article noting Dunleavy had failed to live up to promises made two years ago to put 15 more troopers in rural communities that cannot be reached by road. The article pointed out that the lack of rural law officers in Alaska has at times resulted in long delays until arrests are made, leaving victims and residents in some villages on edge before suspects can be apprehended. A 2020 report by the University of Alaska Anchorage found that Western Alaska is understaffed by troopers by about 22%.

Dunleavy’s promise came at the 2019 convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest Native group in the state, which was being held virtually again this week.

Les Gara, former state representative and Democratic candidate for governor, criticized the governor’s efforts on social media Tuesday. Gara said that in Dunleavy’s three years in office, he had let “the foster care system fray” and had let dozens of rural communities go without any law enforcement presence. Gara noted Dunleavy vetoed funds for foster care this summer.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said Dunleavy this summer vetoed $3.4 million for a state program that works with tribes to deal with child custody issues. Fields called the governor’s announcement on Tuesday “galling.”

“He’s the reason why this funding isn’t there already. It’s outrageous,” Fields said.

State Rep. Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham and former House speaker, said he was glad to see the plan, though some of the proposed fixes are coming late.

“I would ask what took so long,” he said of the plan for the village public safety officers.

“All the issues raised today, from domestic violence to missing and murdered people, to sex trafficking, foster care and and homelessness, those problems have been in epidemic proportions in Alaska for some time,” Edgmon said. “It’s encouraging to see the Dunleavy administration finally take note of it.”

Dunleavy said his administration has increased the number of troopers in rural Alaska and launched sign-up bonuses to attract more. His administration has deployed seven major crime investigators to Western Alaska last month, in Bethel, Nome, Dillingham and Kotzebue, so troopers can focus on patrols in communities, he said.

“By the end of the month, we will have cleared the backlog of nearly 3,500 untested sexual assault examination kits,” he said. The problem “goes back for decades.”

The state is also making progress on collecting missing DNA from people arrested for a variety of crimes. For many years, state law enforcement agencies had failed to collect the DNA of more than 21,000 offenders, contrary to Alaska law, the Daily News and ProPublica reported in August.

Dunleavy said more details of the program’s cost will be released when the governor releases his budget on Wednesday.

The proposal will include:

• A request to the Legislature to increase funding to the Department of Public Safety by $3.5 million to deal with what the governor described as a gap in federal Victims of Crime Act funding.

• An omnibus crime bill dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence, to be introduced in the next session with proposed changes to Alaska law that would: Expand the crimes considered to be domestic violence; boost penalties for offenses; expand the definition of serious physical injury; provide bail notice to victims; and address repeated violations of protective orders.

• An administrative order to form the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Council. It will seek funding for two tribal liaison positions within the Department of Public Safety and one position for the Missing Persons Clearinghouse, part of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation that tracks missing persons cases in Alaska.

• Creation of a statewide database and management system to be operated by multiple stakeholders. “This new system will allow for ease of use for authorized providers and grant administrators to spot patterns and identify root causes within homelessness, trafficking and (missing and murdered Indigenous people),” the governor’s office said in a prepared statement on Tuesday.

• Create a pilot program, the Alaska Family Justice Center, to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence with comprehensive support in one location, including forensic and medical services, legal aid, therapy, emergency housing and other services. Health and safety organizations will partner with the state to provide services.

Review Alaska’s foster care system in an effort to improve services and reduce the number of children in foster care programs in Alaska.

• Create a statewide homelessness coordinator position in the governor’s office and a data manager position at the Department of Health and Social Services to address homelessness.

Several representatives of groups that combat sexual assault, domestic violence, homelessness and other issues targeted by the proposal praised the effort to increase resources. They also said they supported the proposal’s broad approach to attack multiple issues and involve multiple groups.

“This will just be a game-changer for people able to access services,” and help hold perpetrators accountable, said Brenda Stanfill, with Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Kendra Kloster, with Native Peoples Action, a group designed to improve Native communities, said rates of violence in rural areas are 10 times higher than the national average. She said she looked forward to helping move the initiative forward.

“They’re our daughters, they’re our mothers, they’re our grandmothers,” she said, her voice breaking. “They’re not just numbers to us.”

Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed to this article.

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