Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr spent three days touring Alaska with the congressional delegation to hear about and see for himself the lack of public safety in rural Alaska. He spent a day in Bethel and the nearby village of Napaskiak.
Barr's security detail outnumbered the number of village public safety officers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a region roughly the size of Oregon.
Western Alaska has a public safety crisis, one that’s been there for decades. A recent Anchorage Daily News article highlighted just how bad it is. At one point this year, at least one in three rural Alaskan villages had no law enforcement. Western Alaska also has some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation, and ranks high in the number of murdered and missing indigenous women.
With Senator Lisa Murkowski by his side, the Attorney General made his first visit to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
"You have to see it to understand it," Barr said.
Barr says that it’s hard for him to imagine a “more vulnerable population.” And he says that even the bare minimum of basic safety standards is lacking in the Y-K Delta.
Barr and Murkowski first visited Bethel’s Tundra Women’s coalition last Friday, one of two women's shelters in the region. Staff there told them that they were over capacity and struggling to make room for families coming in. Ina Marie Chaney, a shelter manager, says that a case has to be pretty serious before the shelter can even consider it.
"Right now we’re screening on lethality cases," Chaney told Murkowski and Barr.
And then Barr heard from the Association of Village Council Presidents about the public safety crisis and their ideas about fixing it. Reporters were not allowed in that meeting.
AVCP CEO Vivian Korthuis told KYUK later that they presented Barr with a plan to build seven public safety centers in the region, and she hopes that they will get the resources they need to build them.
Then it was time to visit Napaskiak. People lined the banks as the boats carrying Barr and Murkowski pulled up to shore. Their first stop was the jail. Inside the large red building are cells made of wood, with wooden doors.
Napaskiak has two tribal police officers and two village police officers. All of them are part time; they work one week on and one week off. Napaskiak used to have two state-trained village public safety officers, but they left.
Barr also visited the school. There, tribal president Stephen Maxie Jr. begged him to declare an emergency because of how many alcohol-related deaths happened in the village over the past two years.
"The poor suffer the most and they don’t got the most. They’re hurt the most because we’re always overlooked and always put aside," Maxie said.
Barr says that he sees that the criminal justice system isn’t working for Alaska Native tribes. And as for the types of solutions, he says "everything is on the table."
Meanwhile, another tribal police officer is set to leave after only a couple of months on the job. Harry Williams says that he plans to go to building maintenance. The reason? Better pay and benefits.
Barr has said he plans to return to the Y-K Delta. At an Anchorage meeting he told leaders that he would schedule a followup meeting. So far, no date has been set.