Alaska editorial: Rural law enforcement an issue for the Legislature, not the courts

Posted: Tuesday, October 08, 2002

This editorial appeared in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News:

Residents of small rural Alaska communities understandably would like to have better police protection. So would a lot of people in Anchorage, where emergency dispatch is badly short-staffed and the city is desperately trying to fill vacancies in police department ranks.

Here in Anchorage, improving the situation would take more money, which is scarce thanks to the city tax cap. Getting a lot more officers into rural communities would require the Legislature to come up with a lot more money, which is scarce thanks to the squeeze on state finances.

Some rural advocates took their campaign for better police protection to court. Noting that troopers based in larger communities are often slow to respond to calls from villages, they claimed the state is discriminating against Alaska Natives. How? By relying on village public safety officers instead of posting troopers in small, remote communities, which are predominantly Native.

That argument didn't get far in state court. Judge Sharon Gleason ruled last week that the state's hybrid system - having troopers on call at regional hubs in the Bush and lesser-trained, lower-paid village public safety officers on the front lines in most smaller communities - was a reasonable response to the logistical challenges of serving the vast reaches of rural Alaska.

It was the right call. The discrimination claim was a stretch. Rural advocates tried to portray the current system as a vestige of a discriminatory federal Indian police program that ended in 1907. They produced no evidence that racial animus affected trooper assignments in modern times.

The two trooper detachments that serve large numbers of villages have gained staff as other more urbanized detachments shrank. Overall, those rural regions have more troopers per person than urbanized areas. Predominantly non-Native rural communities actually get less state police service than Native communities.

The court said village public safety officers, known as VPSOs, were a supplement to, not a substitute for, trooper coverage. Indeed, the VPSOs handle tasks troopers don't. They help with fire protection, first aid and water safety. They also help enforce the community's own local ordinances.

It's a fact of life in rural Alaska that living there means living with fewer public services. Could troopers respond faster if more were posted in rural Alaska? Sure. Would villages be safer if the VPSOs were better trained and higher paid? Most likely.

As long as discrimination is not involved, though, deciding how much to spend on police protection is not a question for the courts. There's a good case to be made for beefing up police protection in rural areas, but that case has to be taken to the Alaska Legislature.

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