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Rural Alaska

Watching for polar bears and fixing windows: Alaska brings neighborhood watch to villages

Children navigate a steep and slippery path among houses in Little Diomede in 2013. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In the tiny Bering Strait island village of Diomede, "neighborhood watch" means residents band together and look out for polar bears while kids are walking to and from school.

That's very different from a neighborhood watch in Anchorage, where neighbors have phone trees and watch out for open garages and front doors. But as money has dwindled for rural policing, the Alaska State Troopers are hoping to adapt a popular national crime prevention program for the state's farthest-flung communities, in hopes of enhancing public safety and relationships with law enforcement.

As part of a new initiative, state officials are planning meetings and training across Alaska. Troopers and village public safety officers, or VPSOs, will travel and strategize with residents about ways to start a neighborhood watch, said Naomi Sweetman, program coordinator with the Department of Public Safety in the VPSO office. Even as budgets have shrunk, the state is investing in travel this year — the Legislature approved $1 million to the trooper and VPSO travel budget, in part to support the crime prevention effort.

During the meetings, troopers and VPSOs will also educate community members on the principles of preventing crime through environmental design, Sweetman said. The practice, well-established in Anchorage policing, is based in part on making subtle physical changes to homes and businesses to deter criminals and troublemakers.

The two strategies — neighborhood watch and environmental crime prevention — are not meant to substitute for trooper or VPSO response, said Jonathon Taylor, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. They're also not meant to encourage vigilantism, Sweetman said, at a time when there have been high-profile cases of citizens in Anchorage chasing down stolen cars.

But Taylor said years of tight budgets have shifted long-running conversation about crime prevention to the forefront. Troopers and VPSOs can't be everywhere, he said. Meanwhile, people want to know what they can do to make their communities safer places to live.

Sweetman also said the strategies flow into a more effective way to do law enforcement.

"The reality is, police officers are much more effective when they have their community helping them," Sweetman said. "And we have abdicated as a society our responsibility for working with our officers."

Troopers plan to convene meetings in the coming months in villages but also in unincorporated areas on the road system, like the Mat-Su, where people are concerned about issues like illegal camping in parks and property crime, Sweetman said.

The first meeting took place in April at the Mat-Su trooper post outside Wasilla; a second happened Wednesday.

Sweetman said the troopers will proactively schedule meetings but will also respond to requests. She said the plan is to train troopers and residents together. Officials hope tighter community relationships with law enforcement can help tackle big problems like bootlegging and drug importation, Sweetman said.

There are about 350 troopers working in Alaska communities without their own police departments. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and portions of the Valdez and Cordova census area alone make up about 20,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia.

Gina Appolloni is the village public safety officer director for Kawerak Inc., the nonprofit arm of the Bering Straits Native Corp. She is based in Nome and oversees five VPSOs, who are responsible for public safety in 15 communities. Appolloni has done the job for almost a decade and a half. She once oversaw twice the number of VPSOs, she said.

More widespread community watch programs would ease pressure on the VPSOs, who have to be on duty all the time, Appolloni said.

But Appolloni said the standard neighborhood watch toolkit developed in the Lower 48 contains very little that applies in rural Alaska. Most of those programs teach techniques that involve pavement, lighting and working with local sheriffs and police, she said. In rural Alaska, there's none of that.

"If we recognize the obstacles right off the bat, address them, and tweak it to fit a rural community of 100 to 700 people, I think it will be more successful," Appolloni said

In some small communities, a neighborhood watch might include assisting elders to and from the grocery store, Sweetman said. Or walking around and making sure kids get home at curfew. Or going on walks around places that have been vandalized.

Instead of a phone tree, as in a tightly packed urban neighborhood, people in rural Alaska might be on VHF radios, Sweetman said.

She said every community might need something different.

In the Mat-Su, where there are already community watch programs, troopers plan to be more readily available to give information and advice, Sweetman said.

Patricia Fisher, the president of Meadow Lakes Community Council, called for town halls earlier this year because she was frustrated about property crime. Her home is in a big unincorporated area between Big Lake and Wasilla with a population of about 10,000.

Fisher has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. She never used to lock her house or her car, but she's started to in the past year. There are no police, and the troopers are stretched thin, Fisher said.

She said there's been a lot of talk about civil area patrols but people weren't sure how to start. Trooper training and information would be extremely helpful, she said.

Sweetman said she expects the programs to ebb and flow. Some years a community will have a neighborhood watch, and then it won't, she said.

Suggestions about changes based on environmental design will also likely come down to money. In the Norton Sound village of Shishmaref, a community of about 600 people, residents were having trouble with vandalism. Boarded-up windows were a safety issue because they cut off a line of surveillance, Sweetman said. Sweetman and Appolloni, the Nome-based head of the Kawerak village public safety officers, traveled to Shishmaref to examine ways to fix the issue.

The trip ended with recommendations to install Plexiglas windows that are less vulnerable to vandalism. That hasn't happened yet, though, because there isn't money to do it, Appolloni said.

Sweetman said the fixes will have to be what community members and public safety officials decide make the most sense.

"It can look however the community needs it to look," Sweetman said.

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