Last week, KYUK ran a four-part series on the experiences of Anna Bill, a former village police officer in Mountain Village who reluctantly quit her job after helping to save dozens of lives. While her community supported her, Anna still responded to calls without adequate equipment or reinforcements. So last Friday, she sat down with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan and asked him what the state could do support officers like her. This interview was moderated by KYUK's Teresa Cotsirilos and has been condensed for time.
ANNA BILL: When I was a village police officer, I didn't have a uniform, a bulletproof vest, handcuffs, or other materials needed. I was responding to as many as three suicide attempts a day, and sometimes I didn't even have rubber gloves to use. I didn't have these things because the city of Mountain Village doesn't always have the budget to buy the equipment that we need. But I bet the state can't afford to buy it. Why are village police officers so underfunded?
WALT MONEGAN: I can take a stab at that. You know, village police officers are employees of the village. Normally what happens with police departments is they have a fund base, i.e. taxing system, that allows the training and equipment and hiring of police officers, as well as other essential personnel like firefighters, for example. So I guess, to go back to your question, it is because you're an employee of your village, and there is no mechanism other than a grant or an appropriation that might be able to help on that.
There is some federal money available. The state has been cut back so much that where we might have been able to assist in some aspects, and we still may in some, we can't do it for everybody.
AB: Okay, fair enough. The next question is, I was injured on the job several times, and my last injury will require surgery. The city wasn't able to pay for my administrative leave after the injuries occurred, and my finances really took a hit; I almost got evicted. Is there anything the state can do to take better care of the village or tribal police officers that are injured on the job?
WM: Well, candidly it's, it's the same kind of answer that I just talked about as far as the equipment is concerned.
AB: But over the years the state of Alaska has cut funding that would have gone to local police departments in the villages, right?
WM: The state of Alaska basically has done away with a lot of things where there used to be a revenue sharing, or whatnot.
Just brainstorming a little bit, do you know if Mountain Village is a part of the Alaska Municipal League, or AML?
AB: Yes, we're under AML.
WM: Okay, if that's the case, perhaps that might be a good conversation to start up with AML where, if AML or other kind of umbrella outfits might look at a group insurance where everybody pays a little bit. That might assist [Mountain Village employees] until such time as the state can get back enough revenue so that we might be able to participate a little bit more in what we had in the past.
AB: Okay. Here's another question. I was only a village police officer for 8 1/2 months, and I had to assist in the arrest of four different village and tribal police officers. How can we improve the background checks or hiring process for a local law enforcement?
WM: Well that one, Anna, these past few months, the governor signed a bill that authorizes the Alaska Police Standards Council to do background checks for communities like Mountain Village. In the past, you didn't have the ability to directly communicate with the federal system. So we made a bridge, and the communities like Mountain Village can actually take the candidates and submit them to the Alaska Police Standards Council, and we’ll run the background checks on the candidates to help improve the quality of the person that you have.
AB: It was really hard to do police work with literally no training at all. What can the state do to improve training for village police officers like me?
WM: That's a good question. The Village Police Officer Academy roughly requires 48 hours of training per the regulations. Now, could we add more to it? Of course we could. But part of that is, again, it kind of falls back on the cost and how many instructors we get. In your neck of the woods, all of the village police officers are trained through the Yuut Training Academy in Bethel. So if there are issues that need to be considered as to the training, probably the best ones to actually point that out would be the VPOs themselves. Those like yourself who've got experience [could] say, "I feel a little over my head in this particular area or that particular area. What can we do to help make me better prepared for the things I will encounter?"
It's meant to be that you would get to a situation and you would secure it until a State Trooper arrives. That sounds good on paper, but in reality we know that weather is a factor. Availability of Troopers is a factor. And so for those reasons I think that having a discussion, a meeting, about what we can do to improve the VPO Academy and make all of you better prepared probably should be done sooner rather than later.
AB: Yes sir, I agree. I was supposed to attend that [Yuut] Village Police Academy training. However, it was highly, almost impossible just to send one person to that training because of the cost. In order to take that training, sir, it cost $6,000 per person. [NOTE: KYUK called Yuut Elitnaurviat's Director of Programs, Jeremy Osborne, who confirmed that Yuut Elitnaurviat's Village and Tribal Police Officer Academy costs $6,160 per person for tuition, supplies, meals, and lodging. However, he added that most students pay for the program with funding through the Association of Village Council Presidents' Employment, Eligibility, and Training Department.]
WM: Maybe, I think that we could probably put a few communities together. Perhaps it could be done through AML and include Yuut training as well, and find out what we can do, because there might be a way through scholarships by local communities or local business owners within the area. It's their best interest to have a safer community and save the population as well. And we can all discuss that.
AB: Rural Alaska’s generally really underpoliced. You're from out here, so I'm sure you want to improve the situation. What are some of the challenges you're are up against?
WM: Well, that's a great question too, Anna. When you are, as you know, the only responder in any community, you're going to be busy. This is where the community needs to look and kind of figure out how they can help their first responders. I've heard of one community who basically asked that, unless it's a dire emergency, let's make one day a week where there's no kind of calls to give that person a break.
AB: I've actually, the whole eight and a half months that I was working, I was dispatching the police phones 24/7. And then there were times where I put Mountain Village on “Emergency Calls Only,” just so I can get sleep. I think that's a really good idea, to have the community be aware that, you know, there's a lack of police officers in the village that can handle all the calls.
WM: Those are the kind of things that you sit down with the city council and you reach that agreement. Because it's in their best interest to try to keep their village police officers employed and working for them as long as they possibly can.
AB: Well, thank you so much for your time this afternoon! I really appreciate it. That's all the questions that I had for you, unless you have anything else you would like to discuss?
WM: I do, actually. I want to thank you for your service. I know it wasn't that long, but it certainly sounded like it was pretty intense. And you know, I've been a police officer for a long time, but I have the luxury of having a lot of other police officers standing alongside of me. I know the work is tough, and it's tough when you have to do it alone, and it's tougher when you don't get a break. So my hat is off to you.
The only other thing I'd like to add is that, in trying to address the things that happen in your community and all the other communities, things like crime and suicide, they're actually just symptoms of a darker problem. When you stop and talk to children in the classroom, ask them how many of them want to be a criminal? How many would ever think about harming themselves? No one would raise their hand. And yet villages and communities everywhere have their share of those kind of situations. These are options that really nobody really wants to do unless they feel they have no other choice. And so it's the idea of trying to find another choice for them.
AB: Thank you sir. One thing that our community started doing with Native Connections is that we have more events going for younger children, letting everybody know that they feel valued and loved and that we're here and we care for them. And so far it's been making a big impact on our young children, taking them moose hunting and doing stuff as a community together. The juvenile crime rate did decrease a bit.
WM: Excellent. And someday I want to be out there and I want to shake your hand, okay? And maybe buy you a cup of tea.
AB: If you are here, I'd make the tea for you with fresh spring water (laughs).
WM: Oh! Even better!