BETHEL - Village police officers in communities near Bethel have noticed an increase in assaults, drunken driving and public inebriation since southwest Alaska's largest city decided to go wet.
In October, voters in Bethel, a city of 5,600 and a hub for surrounding villages, decided to remove the community's 32-year-old "damp" status that prohibited alcohol sales and limited imports.
Local alcohol sales are still illegal because businesses have yet to obtain liquor licenses. Buyers, however, can now have an unlimited amount of alcohol shipped in.
Alvin Jimmie, coordinator for Village Public Safety Officers in the Bethel region, said somebody seems to be ordering large amounts of alcohol and selling it in dry villages.
Jimmie oversees officers in about 20 villages and says they are working overtime to keep up with an increase in crime tied to alcohol use. Though Jimmie doesn't have statistics to support his claim, officers in villages near Bethel echo it.
Max Olick, village officer in Kwethluk, 12 miles east of Bethel, said the tribal court and the city police force are struggling to handle the rise in cases, almost all of them because of alcohol.
Roman Daniel, a village officer in Nunapitchuk, a dry village of 540 an hour's snowmachine ride from Bethel, said alcohol-related assaults in his villages and nearby Kasigluk have jumped since the October election.
"Everybody that couldn't get alcohol before has it," Daniel said. "I mean, it's everywhere."
He said drunken driving used to be an occasional problem in Nunapitchuk - not anymore.
When Daniel recently responded to a drunken disturbance call, he found a handful of adults in the house, including two women passed out on the floor, and half-gallon jugs of whiskey, mostly empty.
Later that day, Daniel chased down one of the men in the house for driving drunk on a snowmachine. The suspect had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech.
"The smell just grew out of him," he said.
Lt. Craig Macdonald, head of the Alaska State Trooper Post in Bethel, said troopers are looking into the reports, but it's too early to say if the new law has caused crime to increase.
He noted that crime tends to escalate when people cash their Permanent Fund dividend checks in October and November.
"There are a lot of variables," he said.