U.S. Attorney General William Barr is in Alaska this week to learn more about the challenges of rural law enforcement, tribal justice and the high rates of violence against Alaska Native women. 

Barr announced last month that he was planning the trip. He said he's approaching the issue with sympathy for the need to think outside the box and come up with effective ways to protect a vulnerable population.

The attorney general met with Alaska Native leaders Wednesday afternoon in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"I thought I'd like to come and visit and see what the problems are, what are some of the ideas for addressing it, and how we at the Department of Justice can support you here in Alaska to meet these challenges and provide greater security for your community," Barr said.

Barr did more listening than talking during the discussion in Anchorage. Vivian Korthuis, with the Association of Village Council Presidents, asked Barr to look at all of the TV cameras in the room.

"There are six of them. We have six [village public safety officers] in our region that serve 56 tribes. We only have six VPSOs that serve 56 tribes," Korthuis said.

Richard Peterson, with the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, says some elders feel moose are more important to the state than people, referring to law enforcement response times.

"And that's because if a moose gets shot out of season and in three hours three wildlife law enforcement folks will be there. A young Tlingit girl is murdered and it can take 19 hours," said Peterson.

Native leaders are asking for funding for more VPSOs as well as funding to process a backlog of rape kits in Alaska. They also said federal legislation is needed to restore tribal jurisdiction to prosecute domestic violence and other crimes in Alaska villages.

Barr said he's open to working out a plan to stay in communication with tribal leaders as well as Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan.

 
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A cry for change

 

Alaska Native women face violence at rates that are some of the highest in the nation. 

According to a report compiled in April 2019 by the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center in Fairbanks, 50% of Alaska Native women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

A 2018 report from the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute ranked Alaska fourth in the nation for numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, with 52 cases.

In 2017, the Alaska Department of Public Safety produced a report on felony sex crimes and found Native women were the most common victims of serious sex crimes in the state, accounting for 42% of all reported victims.

Alex Cleghorn is an attorney with the Alaska Native Justice Center who formerly worked for the Alaska Department of Law as a special adviser on Alaska Native and rural justice issues. Cleghorn is encouraged that Barr is visiting the state and hopeful the visit will illuminate some of the challenges of law enforcement in Alaska. Cleghorn said the situation in many rural villages is made worse by the fact that many have little to no law enforcement.

"Who do you call when your neighbor is beating his wife and the closest law enforcement is hours, sometimes days, away? I think that that impacts what is acceptable behavior in a community or folks feeling like they can get away with it," said Cleghorn.

Cleghorn said Congress is considering giving tribal courts in Alaska more power to prosecute people for domestic violence, even non-Natives who live in rural communities. It's a pilot project proposed by Rep. Don Young as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress is currently debating whether to re-authorize.

More funding for public safety in rural areas is also key, but Cleghorn said ultimately solutions will depend on a collaboration between the state, federal government and tribal governments.

A collaborative effort

 

Barr will spend time with Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday before heading to Southwest Alaska. The governor says he appreciates Barr is meeting with everyday Alaskans and not just political leaders.

“I think it’s a good thing to meet everyday Alaskans,” he said. “I think Alaskans have a proud history of discussing things unfiltered with their officials. And I think that’s a good thing.”

Dunleavy said he wants to learn what kind of public safety partnerships can be forged between state and federal governments, especially with drug interdiction.

He also hopes Barr’s visit serves as a foundation for a growing relationship with the state’s Congressional delegation.

“I hope the takeaway from him is that he got some pretty good feedback as to what people are thinking about public safety, where public safety needs to be improved, what are some things that are lacking. I think this is going to benefit all of us and not just the attorney general,” Dunleavy said.

The governor will be joined by Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price. 

Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow said they will host Barr for a meeting and tour of the Alaska State Crime Lab where the two will discuss a variety of topics affecting urban and rural communities, including domestic violence and sexual assault, law enforcement and drug-trafficking, and other areas relating to crime and public safety.

After his time in Anchorage, Barr is expected to travel to Bethel on Friday. The region has few roads and little local law enforcement. The Tundra Women's Coalition has been asked to give Barr a tour of its shelter, which is currently at capacity.

Alaska's senior senator was part of the impetus for the attorney general's trip, having asked Barr for a commitment to addressing violence against Native women in a Senate subcommittee meeting in April. He began his answer to Sen. Lisa Murkowski by saying he was already planning a visit to the state.

In Anchorage on Thursday, Murkowski said she wanted to give Barr a realistic view of what Alaskans are facing.

"We have got to address these issues of public safety. They are absolutely paramount in some of our villages, some of our smaller communities, and how we do it and when we do it is something that must rise to a higher level," said Murkowski. "The fact the attorney general has chosen to come here to look for himself, to hear from the voices of Alaskans is exceptionally important."

Murkowski will join the attorney general on Friday's trip.

KTVA's Rhonda McBride and Dave Leval contributed to this report.

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