Justice Dept. pledges $10.5M in emergency funds for public safety

U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, tour Napaskiak’s public safety building on May 31, 2019.
(Photo courtesy of Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency in Alaska on June 28. The announcement follows a visit to the state where he saw firsthand how many rural communities have little-to-no public safety presence.

The Justice Department pledged $10.5 million in immediate funds to support law enforcement in Alaska Native communities. The Justice Department says that $6 million are immediately available to help hire and train village public safety officers as well as tribal and village police officers. The department plans to award $4.5 million for 20 officer positions for Alaska Native grantees by the end of July.

Justice Department official Katharine Sullivan says that the funds are part of a longer-term vision.

“We have this sort of immediate response based on the AG’s visit,” Sullivan explained. “We’re going to have a sort of medium-length response to keep things going, and a long-term plan for sustainability. That’s our goal.”

Other federal agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will submit plans within 30 days to address Alaska rural justice. In separate funding, Children’s Advocacy Centers in rural hub towns like Bethel, as well as in Native American communities in the Lower 48, will receive $14 million in support.

The Department of Justice also laid out additional plans for funding opportunities. Sullivan said that the department wants to put a local public safety official in every rural Alaskan community.

The declaration won praise from the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Association of Village Council Presidents. AVCP CEO Vivian Korthuis called the plan “unprecedented.”

“We’ve been busy organizing a Public Safety Facility Assessment, Public Safety Summit, Statewide VPSO Strategic Plan, and creating a Public Safety Task Force. All of these efforts allowed us to lead with solutions, solutions designed to fit our unique needs,” Korthuis said in a statement.

Barr visited Napaskiak on his Alaska trip, and Napaskiak Tribal Administrator Sharon Williams is celebrating the news.

“I’m very happy. I was close to tears this morning when I heard. Now the waiting game begins,” Williams said.

The declaration exceeded her expectations. The community had asked Barr to declare an emergency because of the lack of public safety and high rates of alcohol-related deaths.

The federal declaration came hours before Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $6 million from the state’s Village Public Safety Officer Program.

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