Lawsuit dubs law enforcement efforts in rural Alaska ineffective

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE - A lawsuit being heard in state Superior Court in Anchorage contends there is an unequal level of law enforcement in Alaska. Lawyers for plaintiffs say the lesser standard of police protection found in rural, primarily Native, communities amounts to racially separate, unequal treatment.

Judge Sharon Gleason is presiding over the trial to decide the final issues in a lawsuit filed against the state government in 1999 by several villages, the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council and the Alaska Native Justice Center.

During the past two years, most of the plaintiffs have been dismissed, along with some of the claims. The remaining plaintiffs - the villages of Akiachak and Tuluksak and several individuals - want the judge to find that an unequal level of law enforcement exists in the off-road villages and to order the state to do something about it.

The plaintiffs have two state troopers on their side. Glenn Flothe, a 24-year veteran trooper who retired in 1998, testified Thursday that there is a substantial difference in the way laws are enforced in off- and on-road villages.

In rural Alaska, troopers generally are posted in regional hubs like Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue and Nome. That means they may be anywhere from an hour to days away when trouble hits an off-road village, he said, compared to an average response time of 45 minutes to a town on the road system.

In road towns, troopers are often a regular, integrated part of the community and their simple presence can deter criminal activity and public disturbances, said Flothe, a former commander of the trooper detachment based in Bethel.

In a road community, for example, "it's not unusual for a trooper to drive out to areas where juveniles" are known to party and carouse, he said. In an off-road village, "the troopers are simply not there to deal with those kinds of problems."

The village officers do their best, Flothe and others testified. But they receive only about one-sixth the training certified troopers and police officers receive, and they have to contact an "oversight trooper" before acting on a felony complaint.

Chief assistant attorney general Dean Guaneli, representing the state, pointed out that village public safety officers provide a number of services besides simple law enforcement. Isn't it true, Guaneli asked Flothe, that the VPSOs also coordinate search-and-rescue efforts and are trained in fire suppression, water and boating safety and to provide emergency medical treatment?

"That's right," Flothe said. "It's not just law enforcement; it's public safety for the community."

Guaneli and assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin also tried to show it can take troopers a long time to respond to calls even on the road system. "Isn't it true that a single trooper on patrol (in some parts of the road system) has to cover an area the size of West Virginia?" the attorney asked.

Flothe agreed.

Josephine Stiles, director for the VPSO program operated by Kawerak Inc. for villages around Nome, said the fact that the village officers have less authority and go unarmed undermines their credibility in villages where almost everyone has a gun.

Robin Lown, a former state trooper who now directs the VPSO program for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council in Southeast Alaska, agreed. In some cases, VPSOs must get a trooper go-ahead even before using a weapon to deal with a problem bear, he said. That can hurt their standing in villages.

"They are not held in the same level of respect as the state trooper," Lown said. "That's my opinion."

The trial is expected to continue through this week.

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