Giving Alaska $10 million won’t fix the state’s horrific domestic violence problem.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr wears a traditional Alaska Native kuspuk while talking with Village Police Officers in Napaskiak, Alaska.  (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

It is heartening to hear that Attorney General William Barr has authorized over $10 million to the state of Alaska to combat domestic violence. His office announced last week that the federal government will “immediately provide $6 million to the state to hire, equip and train rural police, and for mobile holding cells. Another $4.5 million will support 20 officer positions and be provided to Alaska Native organizations by the end of July.” It’s long overdue for the Justice Department to pay attention to Alaska, unfortunately it is unlikely that this money will actually do anything to fix the 49th state’s sickeningly high domestic violence problems.

Full disclosure, I worked in the Alaska State House for a few years and after that was the statewide communications director for one of the largest social service nonprofits in Alaska. I also have a soft spot for the state, I moved away two years ago but will probably always identify as Alaskan. The state has that sort of effect on you. Which is why I take no pleasure in explaining why the Attorney General’s generosity will probably do much less than we may hope.

Alaska is in a political and financial mess right now. The state budget was only passed 57 days after the legislative session was supposed to end and state legislators still haven’t passed a full capital budget. The governor has called a second special session — for the Legislature to address the uniquely Alaskan, and election-quakingly important, issue of the state PFD, an annual cash dividend available for every Alaskan resident — but they can’t even agree where in the state to convene. The state’s problems are manifold, we have proven time and again that we are horrible stewards of state finances (I was admittedly and reluctantly part of the problem when I worked in the State House), and I saw over and over again that Alaska’s leaders are chronically averse to addressing the real issues.

Governor Mike Dunleavy  just vetoed $3 million in funding for the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) Program. This is an essential program for policing the Bush where individual villages are separated by hundreds of miles of tundra or mountains. I am glad that the feds are sending money for rural policing but if it isn’t allocated to VPSOs, who are from the communities they police, then it will not be a significant contribution. Of course, the specific allocations haven’t been announced so the money could yet go to the right program. The Legislature could also override the governor’s veto but the governor vetoed a lot and the chance they will vote to return the money to the VPSOs is slim.

Alaska has the highest crime rate in the nation right now. It’s been like this for a few years. Rural Alaska definitely has long had a disproportionate influence on state crime rates but these days crime is up all over the state. A serious crime wave has hit just about the entire state over the last five years and Anchorage is breaking records in homicides, assault, theft, and basically all types of crimes. Nearly half of Alaska’s entire population lives in Anchorage. Giving $10 million for rural policing will thus have far less impact than it may initially sound like.

Alaska also has a culture problem. It is a small state in reality, not physically of course, but as a community. We know our politicians personally, sit next to them at the movies, see them at the grocer. I met people in Barrow (now Utqiagvik) that I knew from Juneau, which is literally over 1000 miles away. In the Bush, this is magnified in extreme ways.

It is common knowledge that geographically Alaska is huge. What isn’t as well known is that three quarters of Alaska’s communities are inaccessible by road, you have to fly, take a boat, or use a snowmachine to get to most of the state. In a village of a few hundred, separated from the next community by roadless tundra, mountains, glaciers, or water. every crime is committed by someone you know personally and against someone else you know personally. Who do you think is getting raped? Sexually abused? Who do you think the attackers are? Probably your own family. Perhaps more importantly, who do you think the cops, judges, lawyers are? Very often all members of the same family.

For isolated villages, with no jails, possibly even no police, tribal justice has traditionally relied on banishment. The community has the legal right to expel criminals and troublemakers, which has included for assaults violent, sexual, and otherwise. Banishing a rapist doesn’t deal with the rapist just his former community, now he’s the problem of women in some other town. Even villagers expelled for non-violent crimes like drunkenness or smuggling bring their problems with them to the next community and with depressing frequency they get cycled through villages and towns until they eventually end up homeless in one of the bigger cities.

Six or seven years ago I was managing a research project in Utqiagvik, one of the bigger and more remote Bush communities. I had a young, attractive blond assistant with me. She and I were both interested in going caribou hunting. We asked some locals for assistance. She made the mistake of giving her cell number to a young man who promised to help us out. It escalated quickly. Obsessive text messages turned into aggressive voicemails. She told me about it and I looked at the Alaska online Courtview to see if this guy had a record.

And what a record. Assault. Aggravated assault. Sentencing pending on sexual assault. But it’s a small town and this guy had a name very common throughout town. So I went to the sheriff to make sure it was the right man. I explained everything to a deputy. Who told me to put her on a plane immediately. I asked if he was sure and he replied with “You noticed he’s related to a lot of people in town. Why do you think he’s out pending sentence? Put her on a plane or all you can do is hope that he’ll actually go to jail this time.”

The problem is much more complicated than a simple lack of police and more money will only do so much.

Part of the Justice Department’s plan will be giving $4.5 million to Alaska Native Corporations, which do a lot of good and provide a lot of employment around the state. And have also been the subjects of federal investigations for everything from contract kickbacks to fraud to bribery. They’ve diverted federal funding from needy Native families before. I have occasionally been accused of cynicism but telling me you’re going to fix this problem by giving Native Corporations money is hilarious. Besides, for the most part, they already have plenty of money.

Image Courtesy: the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault,

Though it’s not like Alaskans have been standing still on the issue. There are many organizations in the state, like Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) and Facebook groups for victims like Alaska Natives Against Domestic Violence, focused on raising awareness, collecting data, offering services to victims, and advocating for legislative change. The Native Corporations I threw shade on above do also actually spend millions in support of these groups and their efforts. Bills to end rape shield loopholes, protect victims, and empower communities are proposed and (usually) passed pretty much every single year in the State Legislature. Alaska really is trying to Choose Respect.

I am extremely happy with the AG’s decision to give Alaska money to combat Alaska’s horrifying level of domestic violence. What Alaskan women and children are going through, especially in the rural and Native communities, is disgraceful. Any attention paid to it by those with more resources is to be applauded with gratitude.

We should not expect however that this gift will make a meaningful contribution to fixing the problem. The Last Frontier is politically dysfunctional, financially broken, and hemorrhaging citizens at an unprecedented rate. Alaska’s problems are deep and fixing the epidemic of domestic violence requires a concerted, coordinated, cultural change. It took Alaska many years to get to this stage, money won’t fix it.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan PressAlaska Native NewsGENHuman EventsTimes of IsraelDialogue & DiscourseFollow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.

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Categories: Alaska, Corruption, Government, Society, The Swamp, Violence

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