NAPASKIAK — In a Western Alaska village at the end of a multi-day swing through the state, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called the lack of police and high rates of violence and sex crimes in rural Alaska an “emergency” and vowed to do everything he can to fight the problem.
He made the statement after traveling on the Kuskokwim River by boat from Bethel, the largest community in Western Alaska. Napaskiak leaders pressed for more federal support for police and tribal courts to stop a scourge of alcohol-related deaths and high rates of suicide, killings and domestic violence.
“We need help. We may be the poorest people and the neediest people, but we matter," village tribal chief Stephen Maxie Jr. said in an impassioned plea during a gathering in the school cafeteria.
Barr committed to doing everything he can to help the village and other rural regions in Alaska.
“I understand when you say enough is enough,” Barr said to about 75 residents. “These problems have been known for a long time. Now we have to try and deliver some solutions.”
The attorney general said his trip to Alaska was his first to a state in three months on the job. He chose rural Alaska because he prefers to address problems where the needs are greatest, he said.
“It would be hard for me to imagine a more vulnerable population,” he told reporters earlier in the day.
The attorney general’s trip began Wednesday in Anchorage, where Barr met with Native leaders from every region of Alaska. They proposed a statewide rural justice system that relies on tribal groups to provide police, court and victim’s services.
On Thursday, Barr visited the state crime lab in Anchorage, where he heard about a giant backlog of unprocessed rape kits, textbook-sized collections of notes and DNA samples from victims of sexual assaults for use as evidence in criminal cases. He also traveled to Galena, an Interior village.
But he saved his most remote traveling for Friday, arriving in Bethel with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, as host after she’d urged him to travel to the state to see the problems for himself. Bethel is a shopping and services hub to 48 villages, only six of them staffed by a state-supported Village Public Safety Officer, though some have tribal or village police officers with less training.
The security detail of FBI agents and Alaska State Troopers that rolled down Bethel’s dusty roads drew onlookers. One woman sat along the main road in a lawn chair, big plywood signs propped against her truck.
“Welcome to the wild wild west” and “Lawlessness, Politics, Not Justice,” the signs said.
Nikki Pollock said she wanted to remind Barr of the need for local police.
An investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica has found one in three communities in Alaska, about 70 altogether and nearly all of them Alaska Native, had no local law enforcement at some point this year. Many are in regions with the highest rates of poverty, sexual assault and suicide in the United States.
Shortly after arriving in Bethel, Barr sat down with victim advocates from one of only two women’s shelters in the region. They described chronic staffing and money shortages that put women and children’s lives at risk from their abusers.
They told Barr the 30-bed shelter lacks the space to handle the need in the Southwest Alaska region, forcing children and women to often sleep on couches, inflatable mattresses, the floor.
“We do as much as we can. We’re creative," said Ina Mae Chaney, a case manager.
Funds exist to fly in women from other villages, but not to fly them back home, leaving some indefinitely stranded in Bethel, they said. A lack of housing in villages, and a lack of local officers and prosecutors, means some return to their abuser if they go back home.
In villages without local police, it’s not unusual for an entire village to go on lockdown until troopers who work in rural hub posts can fly in, sometimes hours later, they said.
Over lunchtime pizza in Bethel, Barr met with leaders from the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal group providing social services across the Bethel region.
The Department of Justice kept reporters out of that meeting.
But Martha Whitman-Kassock, a program administrator with AVCP, said the group pressed Barr to support a $130 million plan to build seven public safety centers across the region. They would house tribal courts and and services for victims, families and offenders needing rehabilitation. Each would serve smaller, nearby communities.
“We need services provided by our people, for our people,” she said.
The group gave Barr a blueberry-colored kuspuk, a traditional cotton parka, that he slipped on for the 15-minute boat ride to Napaskiak.
“It slims me,” he said, laughing.
In the village, Barr and about 25 officials walked along boardwalks — the village has no roads — past storm-beaten plywood houses where people had hung up hooligan fish for drying.
Barr toured the makeshift jail, peering into empty cells built from lumber and plywood. Residents reminded Barr of the two deaths in a neighboring village in April, when two inmates were trapped in holding cells as the jail burned, a guard unable to unlock the door.
Barr met two new local officers in the village. They’re funded by the tribe and the village, and equipped only only with handcuffs to handle inebriates.
“Neither one is trained,” Murkowski told him, after meeting them. “One is 19. One is 20.”
“It’s better than no police,” Barr said.
In the meeting at the school cafeteria, Maxie, the Napaskiak tribal chief, urged Barr to declare a public safety emergency in the Bethel region. He said there were eight alcohol-related deaths in the village over two years through 2018.
Barr told the leaders the situation is an “emergency,” but stopped short of committing to making an official declaration.
Barr later told reporters that a broad solution is needed, one involving tribal governments and state and federal support. It’s clear local leaders are ready to solve the problem.
“One thing that impressed me the most is the commitment of the people," he told reporters. “They’re not looking for handouts. They’re looking for their due.”