Report highlights long-standing issue of VPOs with criminal convictions

Flying into Selawik. Photo by Michael Brubaker, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Recent reporting in the Anchorage Daily News has exposed a long-standing problem in Alaska of rural communities hiring village police officers with past criminal convictions. That includes some who later committed crimes while they were officers — as the ADN headline puts it — going from “criminal to cop and back again.”

ADN reporter Kyle Hopkins wrote about this and joined Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend.

Listen now

TOWNSEND: Your story on this issue centers on a 2015 death in Selawik. Tell me about that case.

HOPKINS: It got my attention in part because I had been to Selawik years earlier as an Anchorage Daily News reporter and had done a story called, “No Law In Sight”. It was about how Selawik often would have no police officers, and about how that village was indicative of something that happens in dozens of villages around the state, where there’s, at times, no Village Police Officer, there’s no Tribal Police Officer, certainly no VPSO or Trooper. So when I saw that there had been a death in the village, and that the person who was arrested for causing the death, not actually charged with manslaughter or murder, but charged with giving alcohol to and raping this 16-year-old girl was a Village Police Officer, I was interested in how he had been hired because one of the first things, of course, that we do when we report on a serious case like that, is we look at the person who’s been charged, and we look to see what their criminal record is. And in that case, it was clear this was someone who’d been convicted previously as a bootlegger. And it just raised questions about how he had been hired as a Village Police Officer, or to be specific, he was called what that local government called a city patrolman., but the duties are overlapping.

TOWNSEND: You found other Village Police Officers with criminal records that had gone on to commit crimes while they were VPOs. Is there something systemic going on here?

HOPKINS: What this story looks at is the idea that no one really knows who the Village Police Officers are in Alaska. There’s a framework that was created decades ago that acknowledges the idea that, in a small community that needs policing, there might not be a large field of applicants, that maybe you don’t have the same requirements that you have for a State Trooper, but that there’s some vetting, that there’s some effort to make sure that the person being hired to protect his or her neighbors is not a criminal themselves. And that’s where the state and arguably local governments are kinda falling down. No one is really vetting these officers, despite the fact that they do what a police officer does in any city. Sometimes they carry guns, not often, but they have access to the jails. They arrest people. Theoretically, someone should be looking to make sure they’re not themselves criminals. What we found is that, generally, that’s often not happening. It’s part of a long-standing problem, and one that was really well-described in a lawsuit by the Native American Rights fund back in 1999-2001. They fought to try and solve this issue; they lost in court. And here we are almost 20 years later, and the issue is as bad as ever.

TOWNSEND: During your reporting on the death of Lois Cleveland, the young girl in Selawik who died, you came across a recording of an Alaska State Trooper’s interview with her mother. Her mother’s name is Minnie. It’s a hard bit of audio to listen to, but here’s a short clip of it.

MINNIE: They’re supposed to be helping, not hurting and taking her life…

OFFICERS: You’re right.

MINNIE: Who’s his boss? Who hired him?

TOWNSEND: What’s the answer to that question? And how did he get hired as a convicted bootlegger?

HOPKINS: When Minnie Cleveland, the mother of the girl, who you just heard… when her mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, it was initially filed against the city and John Doe. And John Doe was the city administrator because they didn’t know who the person was who had hired Norton. And when I tried to learn a little bit more about that process and talk to the current city administrator, I got a “no comment,” no one was willing to talk to me about that. The city of Selavik also refused to name their current VPOs. In terms of how was he hired, why was he hired, this incident that happened in Selawik… it’s hard to point a finger at any one community because you have local government officials who are asked to wear many, many hats. Sometimes they come in and it’s unclear what some of the requirements are, so you’re hiring multiple people, you might not even know that there’s this requirement that you have to vet your VPO, or send the name off to the state for certification and stuff. So, how that happened remains a little unclear, but the main takeaway for me was that it wasn’t unusual. It’s not surprising that that would happen. In fact, it happens a lot.

TOWNSEND: Kyle, what was the state’s response as you were reporting this? Who did you talk to and did they offer solutions for fixing this problem that’s been going on for a very long time, as you noted?

HOPKINS: The reason I’m doing this story now, beyond the fact that there’s this wrongful death suit that just really shines a light on a specific case, is that when I spoke to the Alaska Police Standards Council and I said, “So, how many VPOs are there, and where are they?” the answer was, “Oh. We have no idea.” And that’s despite a framework within state regulations that necessitates that they do know, and that they certify, and that these officers be certified. So that was the point at which it felt like, the system seems broken for whatever reason. So the response from the state was they would definitely like to know more about who the officers are, they would like to make sure that regulations are being followed. The director of the Police Standards Council said that one problem is there’s kind-of widespread non-compliance with those requirements, that is that an unfunded mandate, is that asking something of city governments that they’re not prepared to do, or don’t have bandwidth to do because they’re asked to do many other things? And that’s where you quickly come back to the lawsuit from 10-20 years ago that said there is this two-tiered system of justice in rural Alaska, where if you’re born in rural Alaska, you’re not afforded the same protections as you are in the city. And why is that? And whose responsibility is that? Is that the state or the feds? And that issue was never resolved, and I think you kind of quickly come back to that larger question of who should be doing more. And it certainly doesn’t seem fair to put it all on the shoulders of local governments.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori