Chickaloon tribal police to expand authority under new agreement with state

SUTTON — Under a new agreement with the state, Chickaloon Native Village tribal police will soon be able to arrest members of the general public suspected of breaking specific laws in the Sutton area.

Officials from the Alaska Department of Public Safety briefed the community on the changes at a town hall meeting this week attended by about 100 people. Once finalized, the agreement will become the only such partnership between the state and a tribal police department currently in effect in Alaska.

State officials say leveraging tribal police will help Alaska State Troopers fill gaps in response capacity. In Mat-Su, an area the size of West Virginia, just five troopers are on patrol at any given time, Austin McDaniel, a Department of Public Safety spokesman, told the crowd of mostly local residents gathered in the Sutton Elementary School gym Tuesday.

Sutton, a former coal town along the Glenn Highway between the mountains and the Matanuska River, lacks the volume of trooper patrols generally seen in more populated areas around Palmer and Wasilla.

“Five troopers on patrol for the whole area of the Mat-Su Valley — that’s not enough. And the department knows that’s not enough,” McDaniel said at the meeting. “So we have to take whatever resources we can to develop and ensure public safety in a responsible way.”

[From 2016: Retake the ‘coal hills’: Sutton wants its playground back from shooters and garbage piles]

Under the proposed agreement, individual Chickaloon tribal police officers will be granted special state policing authority to arrest anyone — including non-tribal members — if they witness them committing a misdemeanor crime, such as property theft or domestic violence, McDaniel said at the meeting. They will also have the power to enforce all laws against sex trafficking and illegal drugs, he said.


Chickaloon tribal officers will be barred from conducting any traffic stops or vehicle pursuits, officials said.

The new agreement is expected to be finalized by mid-June, with individual police officers receiving the limited state enforcement power by midsummer, McDaniel said. Suspects arrested by Chickaloon police using the new authority will be transported into custody at the trooper post 15 miles away in Palmer.

Enforcement allowed under the new agreement will be limited to the Chickaloon census area, a sparsely populated 68-square-mile region off the Glenn Highway northwest of Sutton, plus a selection of village properties in nearby Sutton that include the village school, health clinic and housing area, McDaniel said.

The Chickaloon census area has about 280 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; nearby Sutton has about 1,000. The tribe has about 300 members spread primarily throughout Mat-Su, said Lisa Wade, executive director of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.

Right now, Chickaloon officers are limited to enforcing the tribe’s criminal code only against Alaska Native and American Indian people within a federally designated region that covers about 6,000 square miles and includes about half of Glacier View, all of Palmer, and a portion of Wasilla.

‘Show what we can do’

Tribal officials said they need the new policing authority so they can protect members against violent crimes, which are disproportionately high against Native women. Allowing their officers certain state policing powers in the limited Chickaloon census area and on village properties will give them a way to work with the community, they said.

“We just want to show what we can do,” Wade said.

The new policing plan is sparking concern among some in Sutton amid a history of strained relations around issues including tribal sovereignty and oversight of tribal police officers.

In 2016, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council and the Alaska State Fire Marshal sparred over sovereignty issues raised during building construction. In 2017, then-Chickaloon Tribal Justice Department chief Matthew Michael Schwier was charged by federal prosecutors with possession of child pornography while state officials said he was improperly certified as a police officer in 2015. Schwier was sentenced to 37 months in prison last year.

The meeting Tuesday included almost three hours of questions and comments from community members to state safety officials. Most of them focused on state plans for oversight and whether Chickaloon’s policing power will expand over time beyond the parameters being approved now.

“The debate is not about whether there is crime,” Chris Spitzer, who chairs the Sutton Community Council, said in an interview after the meeting. “The debate is about whether this is the correct answer.”

No other agreement currently in Alaska

Before receiving state approval, Chickaloon tribal police officers must meet a battery of requirements, including an extensive background check and attendance at an approved law enforcement academy and field training program, McDaniel said.

The agreement was requested by the traditional council last year to allow policing of crimes committed by non-Natives against Alaska Native citizens in Chickaloon, council officials said. While the Department of Public Safety has had similar agreements with village police departments in the past, including Chickaloon, no such partnerships currently are in place, McDaniel said.

State officials say they hope the Chickaloon agreement will serve as a framework for future partnerships with other tribal departments.

A 2022 expansion to the federal Violence Against Women Act made millions in federal funding available to improve or establish village and tribe law enforcement across the state. McDaniel said officials expect an uptick in such partnership requests from villages across the state as a result of that funding.

Donna Anthony, a former Palmer Police Department investigator, serves as justice director for the Chickaloon Tribal Police Department. The department will submit three officers for the program, with plans to add a fourth later, Anthony said. They have so far received about $4.3 million in federal grants for police training, equipment, and other tribal justice programs.

Chickaloon is also one of two villages accepted last year for a pilot program operated under the Violence Against Women Act, according to U.S. Justice Department officials. The Native Village of Dot Lake, located off the Alaska Highway about 50 miles northwest of Tok, was also accepted, officials said.

That effort, which could take years to complete due to rigorous federal administrative and due process requirements, would ultimately allow Chickaloon Native Village officials to police, prosecute, and punish the general public through a tribal justice system for specific violent misdemeanor crimes they commit against any Alaska Native or American Indian people in the large Chickaloon statistical area, Justice Department officials said.

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Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.