Kyle Hopkins, the Anchorage Daily News reporter who broke the story with ProPublica, described the situation to NPR as part of a “two-tiered justice system in which people in Alaska’s most remote communities do not enjoy the same level of protection and public safety services as those of us who live in the cities.”
The story begins in Stebbins, Alaska, a small village where every one of its seven police officers had pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the last decade. They had all served terms in jails, prisons or halfway houses and only one had received formal law enforcement training.
Nimeron Mike, one of the men the story profiles, did not think he stood a chance at becoming a police officer. He is a registered sex offender also convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault, among other crimes.
The town hired him the same day he applied.
The department terminated Mike’s job was terminate in March, but not for his criminal record, the report says. The city administrator told reporters Mike lost his job because he wasn’t responding to calls and had conflicts with another officer.
Despite the state’s law preventing people who were convicted of crimes in the decade preceding their applications from becoming officers, it happens all the time, according to the investigation. Few people want the job, and it does not offer good pay.
As of 2010, 95.3% of the small Stebbins population is American Indian. As of 2016, the median household income is under $40,000 a year.
ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News found that one in three Alaska communities had no local police, and the mentality has been that convicted felons are better than nothing. But in a state with the highest domestic violence and sexual assault rates in the country, the risk is high.
According to Amnesty International, Native American and Alaska Native women are over two and a half times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women. There is also insufficient police data regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women, proving the country’s lack of concern for Native communities. The same problem exists in Canada. Indigenous Alaskan children in Stebbins had also been repeatedly victimized in the midst of the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal.
The report points out prosecutors often do not want to put untrained and convicted criminal officers in front of a jury, so defendants often manage to reduce charges in domestic violence assault cases to harassment or coercion.
The Department of Justice announced over $10 million in emergency funding to help address the public safety crisis in rural Alaska, the state with the highest per capita crime rate in the country . The same day, Governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed millions of dollars toward the Village Public Safety Officer program, designed to help rural communities hire and train locals as public safety officers.
In some of these remote communities, state troopers and other emergency personnel could take hours or even days to arrive on a scene.
In 1999, the Native American Rights Fund sued the state of Alaska on behalf of ten Alaska Native villages for the lack of police in remote towns, calling it racist and unconstitutional. The complaint also claims that though the state did not grant the villages sufficient police forces, it prevented the tribes from engaging in traditional cultural justice practices. In 2005, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled against the villages, saying the lack of police was due to budget and geographical constraints, not racism.
However, racism is directly related to poverty and resource allocation. According to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Native American and Alaska Natives live in poverty. To compare, less than 10% of white Americans live in poverty.
These officers take their toll on the towns as well. The report cites Stebbins resident Louise Martin, who filed a restraining order against a Stebbins cop for threatening to beat her up in person and over Facebook messenger. The officer’s criminal record includes domestic violence and bootlegging.
Despite the officers’ records and shoddy conduct, sources in the report say they’ll take any help they can get.
“Other people don’t want to apply,” Stebbins city administrator, Joan Nashoanak told the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica. “They are willing to work.”