Attorney General Barr says ‘very basics of public safety are lacking in the villages’

U.S. Attorney General William Barr heard concerns from Alaska Native leaders about the lack of law enforcement and high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in rural Alaska. (Photo by Joey Mendolia / Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is in Bethel and Napaskiak on Friday, May 31. The visit continues his Alaska tour, meeting with public officials and Alaska Native leaders to discuss public safety, the lack of law enforcement in rural communities and how the federal government can help.

“This is the first trip I’ve taken, because I feel that this is the most pressing need in the country: to provide the basics of safe communities here,” Barr told KYUK.

In an interview with KYUK in Bethel, Attorney General Barr says there are a number of actions the Department of Justice can do to help, but Barr also sees that improvement at the federal level is needed as well.

Barr: We have sort of our traditional grant making programs, training programs, equipment programs, things like that that obviously can be brought to bear. But as I’ve been discussing with Senator Murkowski, I think what we have to do is be smarter about marshaling the resources we do have and and spending them in a way that really addresses the problems here, and not just dribbling in grant money every three years to this program or that program, but a comprehensive approach. And I feel too often what we do is we grant recipients or communities that are seeking help have to tailor their solutions to the structure of the grant programs, and I think it should be the other way around. I think we have to structure the support we give to the solutions that are tailored to the community by the community. And I think I can play a role with supporting Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Sullivan in Washington seeking an improved way of getting the help out here. It’s necessary from the federal government.

KYUK: What we see today in rural communities is a result of generational trauma. Some of it is historical, and then it’s passed family to family, and then you have isolated villages where you live with your perpetrators, and I know you heard some of those stories today. What role does the Justice Department have in breaking the cycle? 

Barr: As Sen. Murkowski and I were discussing, most law enforcement problems really cannot be addressed solely by law enforcement. Ultimately it takes a more holistic approach. Law enforcement is sort of the indispensable part of that. But also you need prevention programs; you need victims’ programs. You need a whole range of programs to address as you see these endemic problems. 

Now the Justice Department has a number of grant programs and others that address victims, that address sexual violence and taking care of the victims of sexual violence. But I think probably the highest priority now has to be figuring out how to get public safety officers, first responders, into the villages. 

KYUK: You say it takes “going back to basics.” You said that at the Tundra Women’s Coalition earlier this morning. What does that mean? 

Barr: Well, I think what I was referring to is that much of the federal government’s support goes to providing bells and whistles to law enforcement, state law enforcement, local law enforcement programs that are already relatively effective. What I was saying is here the very basics of public safety are lacking in the villages, and part of the basics are having first responders that can actually respond in a timely way. And that seems to me to be sort of an indispensable part of the solution. 

KYUK: What do you keep in mind when you return to Washington? 

Barr: I’ll keep in mind that there’s urgency here. You know, far too often we study problems as were sort of highlighted in this presentation today. You know, a lot of these problems have been discussed for a long time. And so I think there’s a sense of urgency here, and I will feel that sense of urgency in Washington to help with the efforts to address it. And as I said, I take away a lot of admiration for this community. And you know, they want to frame the solution for themselves and they need help in doing that, and I’m going to do everything I can from the vantage point I have in government to support that.