Court hears appeal of rural law enforcement suit

Plaintiffs claim shortage of officers in villages indicates discrimination against Alaska Natives

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The chronic shortage of public safety officers in rural Alaska means the state discriminates against Alaska Natives, attorneys argued before the Supreme Court.

The high court heard arguments Tuesday in a case filed four years ago by several village governments and individual Bush residents in Dillingham.

Plaintiffs claim that village officers are underpaid, under-trained and under-armed compared to Alaska State Troopers.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected that claim last year.

Gleason agreed that urban and rural communities receive different levels of service, "but this court finds these discrepancies are due principally to ... geographic isolation, weather conditions and transportation difficulties ... and not to an unconstitutional under-allocation of trooper resources" to the Bush.

In the appeal, Attorney Lawrence Aschenbrenner of the Native American Rights Fund argued Tuesday that police services in rural Alaska are racially based and numerically inferior to what urban Alaskans receive.

"The state intended to establish a lower standard of police protection for Native villages" when it created the village public safety officer, or VPSO, program as an offshoot of the Alaska State Troopers in the late 1970s, he said.

The VPSO program was designed to put officers in rural villages to provide a first response before troopers could arrive from the nearest hub community, such as Bethel or Kotzebue. VPSOs are trained by the troopers but do not carry weapons. They are on call around the clock and are often called upon to subdue friends, neighbors and relatives who disrupt the peace, leading to high turnover rates.

When the VPSO suit was filed, only 75 of 165 off-road communities had officers. The number fell lower this year when Gov. Frank Murkowski eliminated funding for 15 other positions.

Aschenbrenner said geographic, weather and distance limitations inherent in rural Alaska are reasons to expand the public safety program, not to justify its minimal funding.

Assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin countered Aschenbrenner's claims that public safety is shorted in the Bush. Between the allocation of troopers around Alaska and how much time troopers and VPSOs spend on duty, he said, "you find no disparity. What you find is the off-road communities receive slightly more time than the road communities. It's even."

It's true that the state can't afford to put troopers in every village, Baldwin said. And if there aren't enough troopers to go around, it makes sense to put them in the regional hubs, not spread them among the villages, he said

The justices are expected to take several months to decide the case. Changes may be coming before that.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske said that the Murkowski administration is planning an overhaul of the rural police program.

"We're not locked into the VPSO program as a vehicle for those services," he said. "The primary issue is the number of communities we have to consider."

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