Governor Bill Walker visited Bethel last week to sign Senate Bill 148 into law. The bill allows the Alaska Police Standards Council to work with villages to conduct background checks for future police officers. But for tribal police officers, it will be voluntary.
Walker’s administration sent a delegation to Marshall two weeks ago to address an ongoing public safety crisis. Marshall’s tribal council had issued a request for an emergency declaration last spring. The community has been without a police force for the better part of two decades and opioid and alcohol epidemics are wearing the town down.
“We looked at ways we could sort of help them transition to have some in that village for public safety," Walker said.
Marshall’s tribal administrator, Nick Andrew Jr., previously told KYUK that the delegation didn’t make any promises. But during his Bethel trip, Walker said that he is committed to finding a solution and that this bill could be part of it. Gov. Walker says that the bill will make sure that village communities and tribes have the tools available to run background checks on potential officers.
"So that has not been available to the rural areas," Walker said. "As they bring someone into the system, [this] is going to allow them to the background checks as they do in the bigger cities."
But the new law doesn’t require compliance from tribal police officers. However, Walker hopes it will help with the issues from village police officers, who have made headlines in a recent investigative reporting series in the Anchorage Daily News, which highlighted the lack of vetting for these officers.
In some cases, VPO's were found have had prior charges and convictions and ended up abusing their positions.
Public funding, or rather the lack thereof, also came up. Walker says that he wants more funding for public safety, but that recent budget cuts are making that hard to do.
“Well, we certainly apply for every federal funding dollar we can, there’s no question about that," Walker said. "We have done all the cutting, and I think we’re seeing a significant impact in public safety."
Walker says that should his administration return to office next year, it would try to increase public safety funding in the next budget proposal.
A previous version of this story said S.B. 148 does not apply to village police officers. That is incorrect. It applies to VPOs, but not tribal police officers.