ADN report: 1 in 3 Alaska villages lacks law enforcement

Village Public Safety Officers serve as local search and rescue, firefighters, police, and emergency responders. (Photo by Alanna Elder/KFSK)

One in three Alaska villages has no consistent local police presence.

That’s according to reporting by the Anchorage Daily News and just one discovery in an investigation of the lack of law enforcement in parts of Alaska that – in some cases – have the highest rates of sexual assault anywhere in the United States.

The Daily News on Sunday launched a project in partnership with ProPublica – the independent journalism nonprofit funding some of the work – called “Lawless,” which they describe as the most comprehensive look ever at law enforcement in rural Alaska.

Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins says he hopes the project will expose some of the most troubling – and most persistent – problems Alaskans have faced.

HOPKINS: There are things in our reporting that won’t be surprising to lifelong Alaskans, or certainly won’t be surprising to rural Alaskans. Many people living in villages will not be surprised to hear that there’s not certified law enforcement in many villages. But I feel like we have to just take a step back… just because some of these things are so familiar to us. Like that like that rape statistic; it’s so familiar to us it becomes you become numb to it, right? It becomes like the wallpaper for us. “You know it’s just it’s just part of living in Alaska. There’s the highest rate of sexual assault. That’s how it is in Alaska. There’s no cops in these remote villages and that’s just how it is.” Well really? Should it be? Why should it be like that? And not taking these problems for granted and just trying to take a fresh look at them. Think of all the things that we’ve tried and think of all the talk and all that policy and all the legislation that’s happened. We’ve known that this is an issue as long as I can remember for my whole life and yet it’s not getting any better. And so the project was an attempt to just look at why is that. We know that this is a problem. Why can’t we seem to fix it? And to really just kind of drill down and look at laws, look at the way that our criminal justice system works, look at the way that crimes are prosecuted, the way that they were reported. If they are not being reported, why is that? And if they are being reported and they’re not being followed up on and they’re not being investigated or they’re being investigated and not prosecuted… essentially why is it that we have all these offenses and so few people are being held accountable?

GROVE: You’ve covered these issues for a long time. The Anchorage Daily News has this reputation for covering these issues. Does that make it possible for people to open up to you that they know that you’ve got years in covering these kind of things, you’re gonna do an honest job by them?

HOPKINS: My approach to it has been that I ask a lot of people to tell me their stories. And I try not to push at all. I say, “Look, here’s what I’m doing. Here’s the topic I’m working on. Here’s the story I’m working on. It seems like you might have a story to tell. Can we talk about that? How would you feel about doing that?” And a lot of times it can sometimes be a long conversation where they kind of think about it for a while and then at some point they might come back and say, “You know, I do think it’s time for me to tell my story.” And then we talk about it, and I try to make sure they’re not surprised, that when the story comes out, they’re not surprised by what’s in it. Probably more often than not people are saying, “I’m not ready to talk about that.”

GROVE: There’s this multimedia photography component to this and there’s this huge double-page spread in the print edition and the online story has this 360 video. In a lot of these, there are kids either at school or out playing and that sort of thing, and in the context of what the stories are about, it kind of seems like a little ominous. And you’re a dad and I just wondered do you see it like that too when you look at it now, considering the subject matter and all these kids in these in these photos and video?

HOPKINS:Because I was there when we were taking the photos. When I see the photos, I think about that moment. Like, there’s a photo in Annie Reed’s house with her granddaughter, and that house was just a lovely place to be. There were all these dogs, there’s the babies, it’s wall-to-wall family photos, and it’s just a warm loving house to be in. And so it’s hard for me to see it through the eyes of a reader seeing it for the first time. I think part of the reason I want to do this project is what’s at stake right? It is the life and safety and happiness of this generation of Alaska children that we’re raising. And I hope that the photos celebrate those kids, and they’re a big part of village life, but also I just feel like that’s why we are doing this reporting. You kind of have to put yourself in the place of thinking, “All right. What’s a 5-year-old a 10-year-old living in Alaska right now… are we doing everything we can to protect that child as they are now and as they grow up? This project, one of the things I was concerned about is that it would be too familiar to Alaskans, that Alaskans we would feel like we already knew this. But also, the longer I do this work like as as a reporter, the more convinced I am that the best stories are the ones that are right an inch from your face. It’s the thing that you’ve been looking at and thinking about your whole life and feeling uneasy about and feeling like, “Boy, this just doesn’t seem right to me. Why does it have to be like this?” And that those stories that seem obvious those are the ones that we should be tackling head-on. The only reason not to do it it’s because it’s complicated and you’re gonna get pushback no matter what and it’s going to take forever and it’s expensive. And those aren’t good enough reasons not to do it.