There is no place in this country, and very few places in the world, like Alaska. Its sheer enormity is overwhelming; once, I took a prop plane from Nome to a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea called Shishmaref and all I did was stare out the window of the plane at the vast white landscape below. It didn't seem like one place. It seemed like every place, all at once.
But, to the people living there, Alaska is a place like any other place and, right now, the state of Alaska is in desperate trouble. The folks at ProPublica teamed up with the staff of the Anchorage Daily News to produce a report on the state's shattered system of local law enforcement. There is a village called Stebbins there, up along the Bering Strait, in which every local police officer has been convicted at one time or another of domestic violence.
Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes. “My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people. He was wrong. On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help. “Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”
In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind. The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook. Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter. (The officer named in the restraining order said he was busy and hung up the phone when asked about his criminal history; the other officer admitted to the crime.)
The reason for this is quite simple. Law enforcement in Alaska, especially in its many backwater areas, is falling apart. Back in May, this same reporting consortium revealed that 30 percent of all the communities in Alaska have no local law-enforcement at all. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice earmarked $10.5 million in aid to support local law-enforcement in rural Alaskan villages. This has helped, a little. Meanwhile, as the report indicates, the state government has given up sorting out the mess.
A key part of the problem: There aren’t enough state troopers or other state-funded cops to go around. When it comes to boots-on-the-ground law enforcement, village police officers (VPOs) and tribal police officers (TPOs) working in Alaska villages are at least as common. Yet no one keeps track of who these officers are, where they are working, if they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training. The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess. Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest. Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country.
Then there is Governor Mike Dunleavy, who apparently believes in being "tough on crime" as long as he doesn't have to ask people to pay for it.
On the same day the federal government announced millions in emergency funds for Alaska rural police in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy revealed he had vetoed millions from the VPSO program, saying the money was for vacant positions. Dunleavy, a Republican, has declared a “war on criminals” and vowed to punish sexual predators. “If you hurt Alaskans, if you molest children, if you assault women, we’re really going to come after you,” Dunleavy said at a July 8 crime bill signing.
The VPSO's are highly trained local police officers, just one step down from Alaska state troopers. But, of course, training highly trained police officers costs money, which might have to come from taxes and, well, we all know how that goes.
Asked moments later why the Alaska Police Standards Council has suspended efforts to revamp law enforcement hiring regulations, given that men convicted of sex crimes are working as police in some villages, Dunleavy offered no specifics but said he planned to hold meetings over the summer with “stakeholders.” Bahnke, the head of the Nome-based nonprofit that employs VPSOs, said that only five of the 15 communities in her region have VPSOs and called on the state to spend unused salaries on equipment, housing and other amenities that would make it easier to recruit new officers.
Dunleavy's been being very Republican in recent days. When he was campaigning for governor, he promised to pay each Alaskan $3,000 from the Permanent Fund, that uniquely Alaskan institution based on the state's oil revenues. The state also has an ongoing budget shortfall because of the drop-off in oil revenues. As the Los Angeles Times reports, this caused a drop in the annual individual payouts from the Permanent Fund. Dunleavy's promise to raise them again put him in a bind because the alternative would be to raise taxes and, well, that simply is not done. So Dunleavy took an ax to the state budget in order to pay each Alaskan the three-grand he'd promised. Essentially, Dunleavy was block-granting every individual citizen. The effects of this strategy have proven to be profound.
Through line-item vetoes, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has cut $444 million from the $8.3-billion state operating budget that took effect July 1. His targets included the $2.7 million that the state would have provided Alaska’s 27 public radio and television stations, along with much of the funding for food banks, senior citizens and the public university system.
It was the latter cuts that brought the situation in Alaska a little national attention as well. Educators and administrators working in higher education in the Lower 48 were gobsmacked by Dunleavy's proposed cuts in the state university system, which totaled 47 percent of their current operating revenues. (Many of the educators began to hear the roar of a train bearing down on them, too.) As Cas Mudde wrote in the Guardian, these cuts would virtually destroy state-funded higher education in the state.
Dunleavy has defended his draconian budget cuts as a “ policy choice” to increase the Permanent Fund dividend Alaskans receive each year – a major election promise he made during his campaign. While this might be good news for drug dealers – research shows a 14% increase in substance-abuse incidents the day after the annual payout – there is little evidence that the dividends actually boost the state economy. But the University of Alaska system does.
Economists have shown that investing in universities boosts the economy of countries and states. They found direct and indirect effects of higher education spending that led to a significant increase in GDP across time and space. From Ohio to West Virginia, public universities have added billions to the state economies. Alaska is no exception. As my colleague Marshall Shepherd noted, the University of Alaska system provided $714m (directly) and $402m (indirectly) to the statewide economy in 2012 alone.
Now, it's entirely possible that, even if you're horrified by what's going on up there, you might wonder what the perilous state of Alaska's state universities has to do with you here in the Lower 48. Have I mentioned that a lot of Alaska is located in the Arctic? The consequences of the Great Chinese Climate Hoax often are first encountered there. From Gizmodo:
Rick Thoman, a climate researcher at the university-headquartered Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, told Earther that the system is the “primary academic center in the United States doing Arctic research, not just physical/biological sciences but social science on the needs of the peoples of Alaska. No other institution in Alaska can do this work.” (He also noted his views do not represent those of his employer.)...Indeed, the science done at these institutions is of critical use within the state where the problems climate change poses are extraordinary. Communities are being washed into the ocean and upended by permafrost thawing. They’re facing an increasing risk of infectious diseases, and the destruction of traditional livelihoods and ways of life. Without a dedicated home, research on these subjects will fragment or cease to exist, leaving Alaskans in the dark about the threats of climate change and science-based solutions. And the loss of research would ripple through the entire U.S. Arctic research community. “There is an idiom in the North—what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Victoria Herrmann, the president of the Arctic Institute think tank, told Earther. “Every climate change researcher, educator, scientist, and student in the Lower 48 whose work touches the American Arctic relies on the University of Alaska. If the UA is defunded at the current rate, Arctic research in every corner of America will suffer.”
All of this is to pay for what essentially was Dunleavy's discreet attempt to coerce Alaskans into staying put. Of course, with every cop a criminal, and other villages being washed out to sea, and virtually no higher education, you're not going to have anything to spend your $3,000 on, except drugs, maybe.
Dunleavy has said he believes that future increases in oil production on the North Slope will eventually pull Alaska out of its fiscal jam.
I feel the same way about PowerBall, every Wednesday and Saturday.
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