Court: Bush cops are good enough

Judge backs state's rural law enforcement

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The state's law enforcement system in remote, predominantly Native villages is not unconstitutionally inferior to law enforcement in Alaska's road-accessible communities, a state Superior Court judge has ruled.

Bush residents sometimes get less police protection than urban Alaskans, but that's largely because of their geographic isolation, Judge Sharon Gleason said in the ruling handed down Monday. It's not because the state's system is designed in a way that systematically discriminates against Natives or rural residents, Gleason said.

"Resolution of the complex problems associated with the allocation of limited law enforcement resources is best determined by the legislative process and by the administration of the Department of Public Safety," Gleason concluded.

The court's concern, Gleason said, is limited to making sure fundamental constitutional rights to equal protection are not violated. Gleason said the Natives who filed the lawsuit failed to make the case for discrimination or denial of equal protection during a two-week trial last April in Anchorage.

An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, said Mike Williams of Akiak, chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council and one of the original plaintiffs in the case.

Williams said one goal in the law enforcement case was to press the Legislature to spend more on rural law enforcement, especially on training for community-based police officers and village public safety officers, known as VPSOs.

The case was brought more than two years ago by the Native American Rights Fund, representing several village governments and individual Bush residents.

Village residents sometimes must wait days or weeks for Alaska State Troopers to respond to calls for help, the plaintiffs said. State-paid VPSOs and village police officers are unarmed, undertrained and ill-prepared to deal with life-and-death situations, attorneys said.

The VPSO program is a racially separate system created for Native villages that has grown into a second-rate program, attorney Lawrence Aschenbrenner argued in closing arguments last May. He said the program should be changed by court order.

During the trial, however, village residents generally praised people trying to provide law enforcement in the Bush, the state's lawyers responded.

The late Glenn Godfrey, an Alaska Native then serving as the state's Public Safety Commissioner, testified at the trial that the VPSO program had become an international model. He acknowledged, however, that off-road communities don't always get the same level of service and rapid response, an admission noted by the judge.

"But this court finds these discrepancies are due principally to the geographic isolation, weather conditions and transportation difficulties inherent in the location of many off-road communities, and not to an unconstitutional under-allocation of trooper resources to the more remote communities in this state," Gleason wrote.

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