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The human cost of Alaska's broken rural justice system

Last November, the bipartisan U.S. Indian Law and Order Commission issued a report about conditions in Alaska's villages, declaring in no uncertain terms that "Alaska's approach to criminal justice issues is fundamentally on the wrong track." It found that the centralized, top-down model of law enforcement in which Alaska State Troopers respond to crises in the villages from regional hubs -- essentially a colonial model -- has failed to provide adequate protection to crime victims. In fact, public safety and security are so bad in rural Alaska, especially for women and children, that the committee characterized the problem as no longer a state problem but a "national disgrace."

The Indian Law and Order Commission's report focused largely on the impacts Alaska's centralized system of law enforcement has had on the residents of the villages. But as events in Tanana last week demonstrated, the system's failures do not affect village residents alone. The safety of individual troopers -- who serve with dedication and often with distinction -- is also compromised by these same failures.

Consider the task given to troopers who provide law enforcement to the villages. With the exception of those troopers posted to a handful of larger villages, they are not part of the communities they police. Detachment D, for example, the troopers' organizational unit that covers the greater Fairbanks area, begins at the Canadian border, reaches all the way up to the North Slope Borough, runs down south almost to Talkeetna and extends west nearly to Unalakleet. In all of this vast area, Detachment D has one Bush post, in Galena. Every other post is on the road system.

Troopers responding to a call -- even an emergency call -- in one of the villages must therefore travel long distances. With the unpredictable and often inclement weather that characterizes this state, the travel alone is often hazardous. But even after they manage to reach the location of the call, the fact that the troopers are outsiders puts them at a severe disadvantage in dealing with that community.

If the village is without any permanent law enforcement presence, the troopers are flying into a crisis situation cold, with little or no reliable information about the dangers they must confront. An astounding number of villages, about 75, have no resident law enforcement officer. Even if the village has a tribal police officer or a village public safety officer, troopers are still the ones who must respond to the most hazardous situations. Tribal police officers and VPSOs are only trained to provide basic law enforcement. And although the Legislature passed a bill this session allowing it, VPSOs are still not authorized to carry firearms on duty. If things get complicated or dangerous, they are supposed to call in the state troopers.

But the troopers themselves have not had the opportunity to build personal ties within the communities they travel to -- the kind of ties that yield valuable knowledge about problematic individuals or situations. Those same personal ties also make communities more accepting of both the troopers and of the laws they must enforce. When law enforcement does not come from within a community, it can breed resentment. It's not uncommon for village residents to experience troopers as an arbitrary, external authority.

While other factors were also at work, the two troopers slain last week in Tanana were operating under these disadvantages. Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson and Trooper Gabriel Rich were part of a four-person rural services unit in Fairbanks that covers 23 villages scattered throughout the Interior. They were called into the village by VPSO Mark Hamlin after Arvin Kangas threatened him with a gun. We don't know what the troopers knew about Arvin Kangas before they attempted to arrest him, but it does not appear they were expecting an armed confrontation.

The father and son -- instigator and accused shooter -- have been identified in the media as being part of the "Athabascan nation," a small fringe group that rejects the authority of the state government. Apparently, local members of the group have also hassled the Tanana Tribal Council and threatened to shoot the VPSO, but in the end, it was the two outsiders who were gunned down.

According to media reports, Nathaniel Kangas also had VPSO Haglin in the sights of his semi-automatic rifle. But he didn't pull the trigger.

It's harder to execute someone you know.

We can't know if changing any one factor in the situation Sgt. Johnson and Trooper Rich confronted would have saved their lives. But noting the dangers they encountered suggests ways to improve Alaska's system of law enforcement in general. According to the Indian Law and Order Commission, control and accountability of law enforcement directed by local tribes is critical for improving public safety. Among other advantages, tribal control brings a place-specific knowledge of what may work best to prevent crime and social disorder.

Although it's common to refer to "the Bush" or "the village" as if they are homogenous communities, that couldn't be further from the truth. Local dialects can change within a few miles. Every village has its own unique culture, its own history, its own social structure. By understanding these differences, local law enforcement can create possibilities for intervention before disagreements or stressful situations become violent, and make it easier to respond to crime. It's worth noting that after the shootings in Tanana, VPSO Haglin was able to enlist the assistance of local community members to take Nathanial Kangas into custody without further incident.

Local tribal control of law enforcement has worked to lower crime rates on Native land throughout the Lower 48. But our state government has rejected this suggestion wholesale, citing statutes and court decisions that grant exclusive authority for law enforcement to the state. It has countered the suggestion of greater tribal control with plans to add a few more VPSO and trooper positions in rural Alaska -- in other words, more of the same.

It's hard to see the value in the state's insistence that its authority must be preserved when this esoteric argument has a body count.

Newspapers have printed stories for years quoting the shocking levels of crime in the Bush, particularly sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and violent crimes. There are real people behind these cold statistics, people with families, goals and dreams for the future -- state troopers, VPSOs and community residents alike. Isn't it time to at least consider a change? Maintaining the state's fierce hold on its authority shouldn't require sacrificing lives.

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)

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