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Rural Alaska

Village jails, where 3 people died in 2 weeks, are part of a system unregulated by the state

The Napakiak jail burned Sunday, April 28, 2019, killing two prisoners and injuring one jail guard. (Photo by Travis Shinabarger)

Over two weeks, three people died in Western Alaska village jails that the state says it has no authority to regulate.

On April 28, the Napakiak public safety building burned with Becca White, 24, and Isaiah Parka, 22. locked in cells. Then on May 10, Robert Nick died in a cell at the jail in Akiachak, a village up the Kuskokwim River from Napakiak.

Officers from tribal police departments had taken White, Parka and Nick to locally operated village lock-ups to sleep off intoxication, a common practice in a parallel tribal justice system which, officials say, the state has no way to oversee.

The facts surrounding the incidents are still being investigated, so it is not clear whether policies and procedures in place at state-run jails and prisons could have prevented the deaths.

But the deaths in Napakiak and Akiachak have focused a spotlight on the life-or-death decisions an unregulated workforce of low-paid tribal police officers and jail guards must make daily, policing rural Alaska villages where the state has no law enforcement presence.

Being a tribal police officer or jail guard is a hard, dangerous job, often done without much training, said Mark Mata, the tribal police chief in Akiachak.

After Nick’s death, “people started bashing us to Facebook,” Mata said. “Saying it could have been prevented. We tried everything, but it just happened so fast.”

Sovereign nations

In some small rural communities in Alaska, state-trained village public safety officers, known as VPSOs, and village police officers, known as VPOs, provide law enforcement.

But in villages where the state doesn’t fund those positions, tribal organizations must provide for basic law-and-order functions, said Azara Mohammadi, a spokeswoman for the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 federally recognized tribal entities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, including Napakiak and Akiachak.

“As sovereign nations, tribes have the ability to govern their own citizens,” Mohammadi said.

Some villages hold bake sales and bingo nights to pay for their tribal police force. Some get federal grants from the Department of Justice.

Tribal councils can make local laws and ordinances as long as they don’t conflict with state or federal law, Mohammadi said. Tribal police officers are empowered to enforce those laws, but they are also called on to do things like detain people suspected of breaking state law until troopers can arrive.

But tribal police officers are not police officers in the eyes of the state.

“They are not regulated by the state,” said Bob Griffiths, the executive director of the Alaska Police Standards Council. “We have no standards for tribal officers. We do not train tribal officers. We do not tell tribes who they can and cannot hire.”

Tribal police officers have "no statutory authority to enforce state law,” Griffiths said.

In fact, the state doesn’t even know who Alaska’s tribal police officers are, or even have a comprehensive accounting of which communities utilize their own tribal police departments, Griffiths said.

The same goes for tribal jails, also paid for and operated locally. There’s no state-level oversight of those either, other than an occasional inspection by the fire marshal, Griffiths said.

There have been legal arguments about whether tribal police officers have any authority to arrest and detain people, or banish people from villages, Griffiths said. In general, the state hasn’t challenged local practices.

“The state of Alaska has said, you know what, we’re not going to wade into this one,” Griffiths said. “This is too ugly, politically or legally. It is Pandora’s box.”

Three-person department

In Akiachak, where there is no VPO or VPSO, the tribal police department is three people, including Mata.

One of the major functions of the tribal police department in Akiachak is detaining people who are intoxicated enough to be a threat to themselves or others.

Mata said 60% to 70% of his officers’ work involves taking people into “protective custody,” under local tribal code, usually for being intoxicated. Akiachak is a “dry” village, meaning the sale and importation of alcohol is banned.

The police chief said his officers took people to jail for a “sleep-off” 106 times in March, the most recent month he’d tallied.

Mata said tribal code allows people to be held for eight hours in a locked cell for sleep-off, or until they are sober enough to be released. He encourages his officers to minimize the use of handcuffs. In Akiachak, tribal police officers don’t carry guns.

In urban Alaska, people who are picked up under similar Title 47 laws for being intoxicated are taken to sleep-off centers usually managed by or through municipalities, like the Anchorage Safety Center. There, they undergo a medical clearance to check their level of intoxication and are taken to a hospital if they are too drunk.

The call that came before the death of Robert Nick was a routine complaint about someone “binging” at a house, Mata said. Tribal officers took 54-year-old Nick into custody on Saturday evening, Mata said.

Nick was booked into the local holding facility around 7:30 p.m., according to Mata. He was put in a locked cell. He seemed alert enough to talk at that point.

“He was calling me ‘nephew,’ ” Mata said.

Mata says he went home but was called back at about 8:45 p.m. by a sleep-off jail guard.

When he returned, Nick had a faint pulse and was barely breathing. A health aide and others tried to revive him for an hour, but he died.

The police chief said he wasn’t sure what happened. The medical examiner is still determining Nick’s cause of death.

When someone dies in the custody of a tribal jail, there’s also little authority for the state to investigate how it happened or if it could have been prevented.

An Alaska state trooper traveled to the scene, retrieved Nick’s body and sent it to the medical examiner for an autopsy, according to agency spokesman Tim DeSpain. But troopers will investigate further only if the medical examiner determines Nick died by homicide or there’s evidence a crime was committed.

‘Things we could do better’

Though there will be no formal investigation of Nick’s death, the police chief says there’s plenty that could be improved.

“There’s a lot of things we can learn from these deaths, these accidents,” Mata said. "Things we could do better.”

Mohammadi of the Association of Village Council Presidents said people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region clearly see improving public safety as a priority.

Tribal delegates recently voted it as their No. 1 issue of concern, and the organization has spent time and money cataloging the decaying state of public safety facilities in the region.

The council is in the process of “designing a public safety model that would fit our region,” she said.

For now, Mata said he has ideas about what to do: High on his list would be additional training for the jail guards charged with watching drunken people taken to sleep it off in jail cells, Mata said. The jail guards are local people whose starting pay is about $8 an hour. They get basically no training.

“I tell them, search them before you put them in the cell. Make sure they don’t have anything dangerous, put them in the cell and watch them,” Mata said. “That’s all we tell them.”

It’s not a job many people in the village really want, he said.

“Imagine watching 16 people at once, and it’s just you,” he said.

Mata said he would love to be able to offer better training for jail guards, and his own officers. He also says he wants surveillance cameras for the cells. The jailhouse facility needs repairs too, he said.

“We need to change that,” he said.