Potential for altercations with Chickaloon tribal officers halted policing agreement

PALMER — A plan to grant special law enforcement powers to Chickaloon tribal police officers was put on indefinite hold last week because public safety officials feared it could lead to altercations between those officers and nontribal members, officials said Monday.

The plan, which was to be in place by mid-June, would have allowed Chickaloon police officers to enforce certain state laws and arrest members of the general public in a roughly 68-square-mile area near Sutton. It was designed to augment state trooper presence in the area.

Officials last week said they halted the special commission plan after receiving “hundreds of comments” from across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

It was the content of some of those comments, however, and not the sheer volume of feedback that led him to halt the effort, Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell said in an interview Monday.

“I was surprised and disappointed at the tone that some of the folks projected either via voice or email,” Cockrell said. “What I didn’t want to see was something escalate, and I could foresee that coming.”

Donna Anthony, a former Palmer Police Department investigator who serves as justice director for the Chickaloon Tribal Police Department, said that based on those comments, she now fears for the safety of her officers.

“I don’t want them to assault my officers,” she said.


Cockrell did not offer specific examples of the kind of comments that prompted his decision.

Chris Spitzer, who chairs the Sutton Community Council, said he knows of people in the community who don’t recognize the tribe’s authority, which could lead them to get into an altercation with tribal police.

“I think that kind of situation could happen — I don’t know if it would, but I think it could,” he said.

Cockrell said he will reconsider the agreement only if he sees “major changes” in the relationship between Sutton and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, where a history of strained relations around issues including tribal sovereignty and oversight of tribal police officers has harmed public trust, he said.

Cockrell said he was previously aware of that history but saw Sutton as a good place to test such an agreement because of its close proximity to the trooper post in Palmer, about 15 miles away.

“We could kind of see what they’re doing,” he said. “We can have contact to ensure the thing is going in the direction we want it to go.”

The proposed agreement would have granted individual Chickaloon tribal officers special state policing authority to arrest anyone — including nontribal members — witnessed committing a misdemeanor crime, such as property theft or domestic violence. Officers would also be able to enforce laws against sex trafficking and illegal drugs, officials said, but not conduct traffic stops or vehicle pursuits.

Under current rules, Chickaloon tribal police are empowered to enforce tribal laws among Alaska Native and American Indian people only. The state’s decision to halt work on the special commission does not affect the “inherent criminal justice authority” held by Chickaloon police, tribal officials said in a statement.

Anthony requested the special commission from the state so the tribal police department could help protect Native citizens from violent crimes committed by anyone in the area covered by the proposal, she said Monday.

The tribe is still moving forward with other federally funded efforts to expand Chickaloon’s policing authority, she said.

Chickaloon is one of two villages accepted last year for a Justice Department program under the Violence Against Women Act that will expand tribal policing authority over the general public for specific violent misdemeanor crimes committed against Alaska Native or American Indian people. First, the tribe must meet a sweeping set of due process requirements.

Dot Lake, off the Alaska Highway about 50 miles northwest of Tok, was also accepted, officials said. Approval under that program could take years.

Cockrell said that while no additional tribal police forces have applied for a special commission, the department still plans to use the now-defunct Chickaloon agreement as a template for future partnerships.

Public safety officials did not meet with Sutton residents about the proposed plan until last month, when the agreement was close to being finalized. Cockrell said next time, the department will do more public outreach before making a decision.

“I think that’s one of my failures — I didn’t engage the community of Sutton sooner,” he said. “I think in the future, if this occurs again, that we would do outreach sooner than we did in this incident.”

Amy Bushatz

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