The state Office of Special Prosecutions will investigate the fatal shooting of a Western Alaska man by a tribal police officer.
Alaska State Troopers say Christopher Wasili, 39, shot first at officers employed by Chefornak’s tribal police department in a confrontation early Saturday. A tribal police officer shot back with his personal handgun, killing Wasili, according to troopers.
The fatal shooting appears to be the first time in recent years that a tribal police officer has killed a suspect. Tribal police fall outside of the state’s regulation of other forms of Alaska law enforcement, such as village public safety officers and state troopers.
Officers hired and employed by Alaska’s tribal governments are not required to be certified law enforcement officers, according to the state Department of Public Safety. The state does not “license, track, or certify tribal police officers,” said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
Tribal police officers, sometimes called TPOs, are a necessity in many small, remote communities, and village tribal governments often use their own funding to hire them, especially when the community would otherwise lack a law enforcement presence.
Many facts about the shooting early Saturday in Chefornak were not clear as of Wednesday.
The Department of Public Safety said it would not release the name of the tribal police officer who shot and killed Wasili, and Chefornak’s local government has not released the officer’s name. In most cases of deadly force by law enforcement, the state public safety department and other agencies typically release the name of the officer after a 72-hour waiting period.
Reached by phone, Chefornak’s tribal administrator said she was not available to answer questions about the community’s public safety department Tuesday afternoon. In a 2022 grant application, the community described its current tribal police force as “understaffed and overworked.”
Chefornak is a village of about 480 people located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, about 8 miles from the Bering Sea.
A further wrinkle in the situation is that the tribal police officer was using his “personally owned handgun,” according to the initial report from troopers.
Typically, tribal police officers don’t carry guns on the job. But “any Alaskan, peace officer or not, may possess a firearm in line with Alaska laws surrounding gun possession and may use a firearm to protect themselves in the circumstances laid out in Alaska law,” McDaniel said.
It wasn’t clear whether the tribal officer was carrying a gun in accordance with the local tribal police policy or not.
The Office of Special Prosecutions will review the incident to “determine if the shooting violated any state criminal law,” said Jenna Gruenstein, chief assistant attorney general with the office.
The agency, part of the Alaska Department of Law, “routinely handles reviews, as well as other cases involving law enforcement officers as suspects or victims, regardless of whether those officers are certified” by the Alaska Police Standards Council in order to avoid potential conflicts “and to ensure all such incidents are handled consistently,” Gruenstein said.