For months, the Northwest Arctic Borough hasn’t had any Village Public Safety Officers in any of their 10 village communities — home to over 4,000 people — and those vacancies have left those communities without any real policing.
The borough recently announced that it will be filling three VPSO positions in the villages of Kobuk, Noatak and Kiana.
When you’re the only law enforcement in a village community, you’re likely going to arrest someone you know. It’s an experience Aucha Kameroff, the head of public safety for the Northwest Arctic Borough, knows well. She once arrested a family member for bootlegging when she was a Village Police Officer in her home village of Emmonak, near the Lower Yukon River.
“And my magistrate aunt said, ‘I can’t deal with this case,’” Kameroff recalled. “But I said, ‘But Auntie, you’re the magistrate. And I’m your niece and I’m the police officer. And this is my other auntie who is the defendant. We still have to do the job, whether we like it or not.’”
It wasn’t the only time she’d arrest a relative. She says that’s just the nature of being law enforcement in a village.
“Everybody knows Tom, Dick and Harry,” Kameroff said. “And you grew up with Tom Dick and Harry. You do stuff with Tom, Dick and Harry. But when you get to a position like a VPSO or a Village Police Officer, you get to a different level.”
Kameroff says that the closeness of these communities sometimes makes it difficult to hire officers from the village.
While village communities across Alaska reckon with the difficulty of turnover in their public safety departments, most communities don’t have law enforcement in the first place. There are fewer than 40 VPSOs in the entire state to cover villages, and while some villages have State Trooper posts, those aren’t staffed all the time.
“We have a significant swath of our state where there is very little effective public safety delivery of necessary services to even attain what we would consider a minimal level of protection,” said state Rep. Chuck Kopp (R-Anchorage).
Kopp and other members of a special legislative working group on VPSOs traveled to Kotzebue in November to get a better idea of public safety in the region.
One of the villages without regular law enforcement is Selawik, 90 miles east of Kotzebue. Tanya Ballot is the tribal administrator for the village and serves on the Northwest Arctic Borough Public Safety commission. When meeting with legislators, Ballot described the village as “lawless.”
“People aren’t afraid,” Ballot said. “They feel that they can do anything without getting caught. It’s like a free for all.”
And until recently, much of the Northwest Arctic Borough was like that. Kameroff says that there have been no VPSOs in any of the borough villages for months after the previous coordinator for the program left the borough.
The borough recently hired three.
“All Indigenous folks,” Kameroff said. “Two from the region, and one from out of region.”
Derek Garfield will serve as a VPSO in his home village of Kobuk. Kotzebue local Justin Scott will serve in Kiana. Megan Prince, originally from Emmonak, will be a VPSO in Noatak.
Kameroff says the three of them will be training at the Department of Public Safety academy in Sitka starting in February for eight weeks before working in their respective villages.
“One of the things in the plans that I have, even if the VPSO if from a village, is have the community have a community potluck to welcome their new person,” Kameroff said.
Kameroff says she’s pleased that all of the hires are from Native communities and have that cultural sense of place.
“I’m not trying to exclude other cultures or any other people to apply for positions like here,” Kameroff said. “But if you’re of your own to be with your own, you could, I think in a lot of ways, get further with how you’re trying to deal with situations.”
While there are still villages in the Northwest Arctic that don’t have police, Kameroff says the borough is building their local program from the ground up.
She says a lot of crime in these communities stems from substance abuse, and she’s hopeful that this revamped program can be more proactive.
“You have to look at the root cause of why people are using and abusing. And it’s not alcohol is the problem or drugs are the problem,” Kameroff said.
She says she’s happy that the state is taking a look at helping strengthen the program.
“This legislative working group has been listening to people, and the ones that are right up there to take on the recommendations to make changes,” Kameroff said.
While her village remains without any type of steady law enforcement, Ballot from Selawik says she’s heartened by the efforts made by the borough and the Legislature to boost rural public safety. She says she hopes the momentum continues.
“We can’t be burying our young people anymore,” Ballot said. “They’re supposed to bury us.”
The VPSO legislative working group met last week in Anchorage to present their initial recommendations for the program. They hope to have them finalized by the end of the month as the legislative session starts in Juneau.