We found 14 villages that hired criminals as cops. Here’s what the state is doing to change that.

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found small Alaska cities have employed police whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired. Now, the state board is working to ensure they meet basic hiring standards.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska.

The Alaska state board that regulates police officers is trying to figure out who is serving as police in remote villages and whether they committed crimes that would bar them from doing so, seeking to plug holes in oversight identified this year by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica.

The newsrooms reported in July that some village governments have resorted to hiring criminals, including registered sex offenders, as local law enforcement. All told, at least 14 small Alaska cities have employed some 34 police whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under current state regulations.

“This media exposure highlighted long-standing problems for (the Alaska Police Standards Council) and the rural communities and helped focus attention on solving the problems,” executive director Bob Griffiths wrote to council members on Nov. 26.

“We reasonably expect the legislature will, in the coming session, address placing statutory limitations on who can be hired as a police officer,” he wrote.

The regulatory board is also proposing a change to state regulations that would expressly forbid anyone convicted of a sex crime from working as an officer in remote villages, even on a temporary basis.

[Related: Six ways to fix Alaska’s law enforcement crisis]

These efforts are a top priority for the Alaska Police Standards Council, said Chairman Justin Doll, chief of the Anchorage Police Department.

“We’re very concerned” about problem officers across the state, he said. Every Alaska community should feel secure in knowing that those wearing badges meet basic standards for law enforcement, he said.

The standards council oversees certification of police officers, state troopers and corrections officers, but village police officers serving in the smallest villages have largely escaped regulation of any kind. In one village, every member of the seven-person police force had been convicted of domestic violence as of early 2019. (Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently announced the community and a neighboring village will receive two Alaska state troopers in 2020.)

In addition to identifying every VPO in remote villages, the police standards council wants to train and certify those rural police. The regulatory council has started reaching out to the 113 Alaska communities eligible to hire VPOs. As of Dec. 12, the council had made contact with a majority.

The regulators identified 51 officers, most of whom were unknown to the state, meaning they were never properly vetted by regulators. A Department of Public Safety spokesman said the state recently began performing background checks on the newly identified officers. One has already been disqualified.

Under Alaska law, a village city government that is not on the road system and has fewer than 1,000 residents can hire a VPO to enforce local laws and assist troopers and other state-certified police. The law is intended to allow remote village governments to hire officers who might not meet the more stringent age and background requirements of police officers in larger communities that have more potential applicants.

Here are some of the changes proposed by the police regulatory board, following the Daily News and ProPublica investigation:

• Clarify that anyone convicted of a felony is disqualified from working as a VPO. (Current regulations say that only felonies within the past 10 years are disqualifying.)

• State that any conviction for a domestic violence crime or a sexual offense disqualifies a person from working as a VPO.

• Prohibit village city governments from hiring applicants on a temporary basis if they do not meet hiring standards.

• Require village city governments to determine whether police applicants meet basic hiring standards — and to determine the applicant’s eligibility with the police standards council — before the applicant is hired.

The council will seek public input on the proposed changes in the coming year.

In the meantime, the council is proposing replacing current VPO requirements with “new, more specific requirements” that include mandatory training on working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

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The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica are spending two years investigating sexual violence in urban and rural Alaska. Here’s how you can stay in touch with us:

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Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com