A series of provisions U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, added to the Tribal Law and Order Act look to specifically address concerns related to the unique needs of communities in rural Alaska, according to a press release issued by Murkowski's office.
The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives July 21 following its earlier Senate passage, is intended to increase law enforcement capacity and judicial authority on Indian reservations.
According to the text of the House version, crime rates on Indian reservations are nearly double the national average, with some communities possessing rates nearly 20 times that of the nation.
Villages in rural Alaska see similar statistics. According to the Alaska Natives Commission, a joint federal-state commission on policies and programs affecting Alaska Native issues, the murder rate among Alaska Natives is four times the national average.
One of Murkowski's amendments would allow the state and tribal organizations in Alaska that employ village public safety officers to fund those positions with Community Oriented Policing Services grants, as well as Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants.
According to the Alaska State Troopers' website, the village public safety officer program started in the late 1970s in an effort to establish a local law enforcement and emergency response presence in rural Alaska communities. VPSOs are employed by the local Alaska Native corporation where the officer serves.
In the release, the Republican senator said that roughly 90 communities in rural Alaska are without law enforcement.
VPSO positions currently are funded by the state or through congressional earmarks, the release stated.
The COPS grant program was established in 1994 following the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, authorizing $8.8 billion over six years to police departments around the nation.
"VPSOs are truly the first responders in the Last Frontier. The VPSOs are the police department, the fire department, the EMS (emergency medical services) and search and rescue all rolled into one. It is only fair that rural Alaska Native communities have the same access to public safety funds that communities and cities across America have," Murkowski said in the release.
Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants are issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fire departments to help them increase the number of firefighters on staff and attain 24-hour staffing. The program was created by Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Act in 2004.
Additionally, Murkowski's amendment would allow all VPSOs and tribal law enforcement officers in Alaska to receive training at the Indian Police Academy of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in New Mexico.
The release identifies a report issued by Amnesty International titled "Maze of Injustice," which the release says casts light on difficulties in collecting forensic evidence in sexual assault cases in Native communities.
Shortages of rape kits and trained personnel to collect the evidence, in addition to shortcomings in the chain of custody process, were cited in the report.
Another amendment Murkowski added asked the Government Accountability Office, which performs audits on the disbursement of public funds and performance audits for Congress, to look further into the evidence collection issue.
According to the release, the amendment specifically directs the GAO to "evaluate the ability of Indian Health Service facilities on remote Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages to handle the collection of forensic evidence and provide recommendations for improvement."
Murkowski was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
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