A rural justice solution that works: Federal and state support, local control

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica spent the year reporting on a public safety crisis in rural Alaska. Amid the coverage, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared the problems to be a national emergency.

What comes next? We asked Alaska public officials, law enforcement and village residents for their specific suggestions for improving public safety. Read all the responses here. More will be added in coming days.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, or AFN, in response to an invitation from the Anchorage Daily News, wishes to join other Alaskans in advancing solutions to the public safety crisis in rural Alaska. The No. 1 recommendation is for adequate and sustained funding to be provided by the state of Alaska, together with the federal government, to support a decentralized system with maximum local control. Alaska is one-fifth the landmass of the entire United States. A centralized system with inadequate funding over such vast distances just doesn’t work.

Public safety, law enforcement and security in our state overlap in numerous areas, and there are stark gaps that need our collective action to fill. If we can agree that public safety for all Alaskans matters; that law enforcement for all Alaskans matters; and the homeland and security of our state and all our people matters — then we are willing to put forward commonsense, reasonable solutions.

AFN believes any multi-faceted solution should include the federal government as an integral partner. The U.S. Departments of Justice, Interior, Defense and Homeland Security must be invited to be part of the solution. A new system needs to be funded in a sustainable way and not be limited to short-term grants. A new system needs to build local capabilities and capacity, bring scale to work and be cost-effective.

Devolving a centralized system with significant gaps will require jurisdiction and cross-jurisdictional agreements. Local control supports existing public safety systems in boroughs and invites new tribal arrangements to develop locally. Security issues and training can be supported by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, together with the Department of State and tribal partners. For example, leadership and proficiency training can clearly be provided by federal partners whose expertise involves this and where this supports their mission. Justice and Interior can unfold new support for tribal and local control using their resources and missions. The state of Alaska can invite tribal partnerships, engage in discussions from a position of mutual respect, and support maximum local control married to stronger capacity. World-class models of public safety, law enforcement and security exist already — we just need to weave them together to bring sustainability and greater resources to our collective efforts.

Here are five more recommendations:

1. Within Justice and Interior: establish a tribal unity for the victims of crime act; advocate for permanent tribal court funding, and support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, with a bipartisan bill.

2. Within Justice: hold tribal consultations; modify the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program to permit flexible use of grant funds to effectively address gaps in infrastructure, and increase COPS appropriations to cover the 70 villages with no permanent law enforcement coverage.

3. Continue working with Justice, Interior and the White House to implement recommendations based on their recent investigations and visit to the state.

4. Support Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s tribal public safety bill, building on Congressman Don Young’s demonstration legislation.

We thank the Anchorage Daily News for the opportunity to advance several ideas we think would be positive steps. We remain committed to seeing ideas put into law and action. We deeply appreciated the dedicated public safety and law enforcement officers in the state. We know they put their lives on the line every day. Let’s get them the resources and flexible, sustainable systems they need.

Julie Kitka serves as president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

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