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Providing rural communities with true justice

  • Author: Tiffany Zulkosky
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 24, 2019
  • Published December 24, 2019

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, on the first day of the legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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.

• • •

Over the past year, the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica have embarked on a mission to draw attention to the failings of Alaska’s public safety system for rural Alaskans. Their stark findings tell a heartbreaking story of two different Alaskas: One where people can count on law enforcement to keep them safe and one where they can’t. Simply stated, as a state we are failing Alaskans and we have to do better.

The U.S. attorney general’s emergency declaration earlier this year reinforces the heartbreaking truth that rural public safety is in crisis. One that demands strategic and substantially funded partnerships. Alaskans can no longer afford for the state to eliminate funding that supposedly goes unspent, just because it thinks it will save money in the short term. Shifting costs and deferring spending does not save money, it just hurts Alaskans.

We must ensure flexibility of Village Public Safety Officer funding within the Department of Public Safety, so annual appropriations are used in ways that meet programmatic needs. If funding allocated for rural public safety has gone unspent at the end of a fiscal year, rather than looking to cut the program’s funding further, the state should actively evaluate what programs need (i.e. public safety facility improvements, upgraded equipment, VPSO housing support, etc.) so that every dollar intended to strengthen and maintain rural public safety systems is utilized. This must be done through meaningful and ongoing consultation with tribes and tribal partners who deploy this essential program across the state.

Administering services on behalf of the state means that tribal partners incur a number of expenses outside of the actual services being provided, called indirect costs. Expenses, like rent and utilities, do not go directly toward having a public safety officer on the ground, but are still vital to effectively providing these programs. When the state asks tribal partners to provide services on its behalf, it needs to be willing to pay for their indirect costs and must stop spreading the false narrative that those costs are imbalanced or bloated. Tribal partners have continuously informed policymakers and bureaucrats that indirect costs remain under a 30% shared cap across regions.

Because the public safety resources to provide justice or protection from immediate harm may be hundreds of miles and a plane ride away, if the state is unable to provide enough troopers to meet the needs of Alaskans, it should consider piloting an expansion in partnership with tribes.

We must have a streamlined process for tribal, municipal, state and federal enforcement officials to work together and combine resources, maximizing services for rural Alaskans.

I firmly believe that the crisis of rural public safety can be solved, but the only way that it will happen is if we work hand in hand with tribal and local leaders. Like local government in other parts of the state, tribes are forceful advocates and know better than anyone else the conditions on the ground and have proven to be extremely effective at providing services to their people. The state should consider how to expand tribal justice tools that are already authorized under federal law, such as Tribal Court Diversion and Tribal Domestic Violence Protective Orders — so our local leaders are enabled to better protect their members. Localizing authority, jurisdiction and law enforcement will ensure more of our remote communities are safe.

As we continue to build our rural Alaska State Trooper posts and VPSO programs, in communities where there may not be year round or daily coverage, we must consider what can be done to build capacity for families and individuals. We should be looking at ways to empower individuals and families by providing tool kits or trainings that offer resources on how to handle emergent or crisis situations.

I am proud of the work done this interim by the Legislature’s VPSO working group. I hope to see statutory improvements undertaken this session, in partnership with our tribes, that seek to strengthen the VPSO program. In the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs this upcoming session, my colleagues and I will continue to discuss a number of different ways to improve life for Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans. However, the success of our work is predicated by people being able to go to bed feeling safe at night. The feeling of safety is a basic need for educational achievement, family stability, economic prosperity and health outcomes, among much, much more.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky represents House District 38 in the Alaska House of Representatives. Her district includes Southwest Alaska villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers to the Bering Sea.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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