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Selawik: Little to no law in sight

  • Author: Kyle Hopkins
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 20, 2009

SELAWIK -- Village Police Officer Clarence Snyder is giving a tour of the Selawik city jail.

The stairs are broken, so he enters through the garage and pushes aside the plywood door that's loose from its hinges. You lock the jail cell by sliding a 2-by-4 across the door, he says, pointing out where a prisoner tried to hang himself last year with a string.

In the winter, Snyder doesn't use jail cells. They don't have heat, and Selawik, an Inupiat village of around 800 people just above the Arctic Circle, gets pretty cold. So Snyder sits in a grimy green office chair watching prisoners until morning. He says he's related to 80 percent of the people he arrests.

That's what the job is like when the city has enough money to pay him. For much of this past winter, the local government was broke and had to slash workers' hours, including his. The mayor declared a disaster in February, saying an usually cold winter put the city more than $200,000 in debt to the power company. The leaking, above-ground plumbing system froze, leaving many households without water and sewer.

That meant Snyder was out of a job and Selawik -- the second-largest community in northwest Alaska -- had no full-time police.

In rural Alaska in 2009, it's not unusual.

"Our law enforcement is almost non-existent in the villages because a lot of times we have to wait for the state troopers to respond," said Jackie Hill, administrator for tribal government services for the Maniilaq Association, the Kotzebue-based health and social services agency that serves 11 villages in the region.

The Alaska State Troopers maintain a post in Kotzebue, and as in other regional hubs, troopers fly or snowmachine to outlying villages for emergencies, to investigate crimes and to make arrests. But the local post shrunk from five patrol troopers to three over the past three years. Unpredictable weather can cancel flights on a moment's notice.

"With 800 residents and little to no law enforcement, it's a scary issue," said Clyde Ramoth, a former Selawik city manager. Especially in summer, when kids are out of school and the sun barely goes down.

HIGH TURNOVER

Policing remote Alaska villages has always been a challenge: Expensive, slow, complicated. To supplement the troopers, there are two other kinds of cops often found in rural communities.

Village Public Safety Officers (widely known as VPSOs) partner with the troopers and are hired after background checks. In the Northwest Alaska villages, they work for Maniilaq and are required to go through more training than the other kind of cop: Village police officers (VPOs), such as Snyder. VPOs work for local municipal or tribal governments.

Here in the Maniilaq region, only two of the five VPSO jobs are currently filled. Kiana has one. Shungnak and Kobuk share another, Hill said.

Selawik used to have a VPSO. But he lost his job in 2007 and then got arrested in November for selling homemade alcohol. Because of the background checks -- no felonies allowed -- the VPSO jobs are hard to fill and most applicants don't qualify, Hill said.

As for the village police officers, turnover is high throughout the region, said Kotzebue Trooper Terry Shepherd. New officers often quit after a week or two of constant phone calls and being asked to confront their family and friends.

Sometimes they commit crimes themselves.

In July, a village police officer was accused of choking a family member in Noorvik, according to troopers. Days later, troopers arrested a former police officer in the same village for bootlegging and assault. Trooper Sgt. Karl Main, head of the Kotzebue post, said some former Selawik officers appeared to be ignoring crimes.

"The entire region is seeing the same issues," he told elders and city leaders at a late April meeting about boosting law enforcement in Selawik.

But the troopers, and his town, have high hopes for Snyder.

At 29, he's nearly 6 feet and 230 pounds with a collar of tattoos on the sides of his neck. He was born in Selawik and knows the town. He's been in trouble before -- most recently he caught a weapons misconduct charge -- but he's off probation and troopers don't expect his record to keep him out of the VPSO program.

"I enjoy sitting down with him and seeing somebody who wants to learn this stuff," Main told Selawik leaders. "Clarence is great with talking to people."

Not that being the long arm of the law makes him any friends.

Since he's started working as a VPO in 2008, people have thrown things at his house, Snyder said. Someone put sugar and metal shavings in his gas tank. He got his best sleep in months when the city essentially laid him off over the winter.

FINANCIAL CRUNCH

It would help to have a place to work.

The Selawik public safety building, just below City Hall, is a wreck. Main said replacing or remodeling it is near the top of troopers' priorities for the region.

Maniilaq bought $100,000 to $150,000 worth of materials to fix it and buildings in other northwest villages, Hill said.

But all that lumber, paint and sheetrock is still sitting in Kotzebue, about 90 miles away, because the nonprofit didn't spend the construction money in time and the state asked for it back, she said.

At the village meeting in April, tribal council member Amelia Ballot asked Main why the troopers can't just have someone based out of Selawik, considering they already rent an apartment in town.

"You have furniture and everything. Why don't you guys just put them in there and let them work out of there," she asked.

At the time, the apartment building didn't have indoor plumbing. Main said he didn't want his troopers living there. The public safety building can't safely hold prisoners, he said, and there are no jail guards.

"We can't set ourselves up for failure ... and at the same time taking care of nine other villages that want the same thing that Selawik wants," he said.

BACK ON THE JOB

In late April, outgoing school principal Gerry Pickner said high school attendance had been as low as 32 percent over the previous few weeks but that courts don't want anything to do with truancy cases. Kids between 14 and 21 run the town, he said.

But residents say that when a trooper arrives, the village grows quiet. People don't make threats or say outrageous things on the VHF radio. If they're drinking, they stay home.

"The fact that the village knows that there's some cops available to arrest them, it'll probably (make) some guys think twice about drinking or fighting," said Ramoth, the former city manager.

Word ought to get out this week: Snyder is back on the job.

The city is still struggling to pay its bills. It's now $251,000 in debt to the Alaska Village Electric Co., which says it's preparing to cut power to city hall -- the same building the jail is in -- on June 15. But in the meantime, the local tribal council recently kicked in money to help with law enforcement. That enabled the city to hire him back.

"They got tired of people DUI-ing, too many people getting beat up," Snyder said.

He started back to work Monday. Went on curfew patrol. Told a bunch of kids to go home.

The job hasn't gotten any easier. Someone pulled a shotgun on him Wednesday morning as he tried to arrest a minor for drinking.

"I almost quit last night," Snyder said. "But then, who else is going to do this?"

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