WASHINGTON — The recently-passed federal spending bill includes $3 million in Alaska State Troopers facilities, seeking to address a shortage of housing for law enforcement officials in rural parts of the state.
The funding, which was directed to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, is aimed at helping increase law enforcement capacity in rural Alaska. A Daily News and ProPublica investigation in 2019 found that one in three Alaska communities had no local police protection. A 2020 study from DPS found that trooper posts around Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Dillingham and Kodiak were understaffed by about 22%.
Housing in particular has proven a significant hurdle to installing law enforcement officers in rural communities. The department is working to address the housing shortage across rural Alaska, primarily in western parts of the state, according to Alaska DPS spokesman Austin McDaniel.
“Housing and professional office space is one of our biggest challenges to improving public safety in rural Alaska and ensuring that every Alaskan feels safe regardless of their zip code,” McDaniel said. “Without a place for Troopers to live, DPS is unable to stand up new Trooper posts or bolster existing posts with additional personnel.”
McDaniel said the funding will help DPS secure existing housing and “jump start” new remote housing projects. For example, McDaniel said that the department is currently seeking bids to build residential housing units for long-term lease in Kotzebue and Nome.
McDaniel did not provide details about how many posts the funding could support or the timeline to acquire facilities.
[From 2019: Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska.]
The funding represents a sliver of the $1.7 trillion omnibus federal spending bill, and is one of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s more than 130 congressionally directed spending allocations — also called earmarks — in the legislation. Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola also voted for the bill, while Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan opposed it, citing its 4,155-page length and the little time that lawmakers had to review it.
Darrell Hildebrand, the public safety manager with Tanana Chiefs Conference, called the $3 million “a wonderful start.”
“There’s certainly a need for housing for public safety in rural Alaska, not just the state troopers but for the (Village Public Safety Officer) program for other agencies,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand said he is not sure how far the funding will stretch, noting the high cost of transporting construction materials to many rural Alaska communities. Regardless, he called the funding “well past due.”
Hildebrand said housing is crucial to recruiting public safety officials in rural Alaska. He said the first question he receives from VPSO hires is if there will be housing in the community.
“In rural Alaska ,it’s a huge obstacle in hiring public safety for villages, and it’s the same for the troopers. You have affordable housing, decent affordable housing where troopers will live, and then they’re going to want to move there,” Hildebrand said. “It’s pretty simple concept, really.”