In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, tribal and village police officers are often hired without training. Many communities lack officers, and turnover can be high.
Last month, about a dozen of the region’s officers attended a two-week rural law enforcement training course at Bethel’s Yuut Elitnaurviat.
In a small, dimly-lit classroom, 13 officers sat in crisp, new uniforms, waiting to get their graduation certificates. Two officers were tribal police from Quinhagak.
“I love helping the community. I like being a good role model,” said 22-year-old John Peter. “There’s not a lot of people who have the courage to step up and be a first responder.”
Phillip Charlie, 24, said that his uncle inspired him to go into law enforcement.
“He was a (tribal police officer) for 12 to 14 years for Quinhagak. He’s pretty much my other dad,” Charlie explained. “(He) made me realize who I wanted to be as a person.”
Peter and Charlie have been working as tribal police officers for about six months. They’re cousins and close friends. When one of them gets a call, they both respond.
“We’re just partners in crime,” Peter said.
It’s critical that they help each other. Tribal police officers are the only law enforcement in Quinhagak. The community is dry, but most of their calls involve alcohol. Calls are highest during the first and middle of the month when checks arrive, and most involve the same people. Assault and domestic violence are common.
This two-week training is the only formal law enforcement instruction Peter and Charlie have ever received.
“Every day I used to be afraid to go to work,” Peter remembered, “because I know I could get in trouble if I messed something up.”
Messing something up wouldn’t be difficult. To be used in court, tasks have to be done a certain way. There’s a proper way to secure evidence, interview suspects and process assaults. The work is dangerous, and the officers don’t have guns or bulletproof vests. At most they carry a baton, pepper spray and handcuffs, yet they respond to calls involving guns and other weapons.
The training has helped ease Peter’s mind.
“I feel a lot of stress is not in me no more, after coming here and learning how to do reports, responding to calls,” he explained.
Charlie also feels more confident just knowing the basics: “How to protect yourself, how to do paperwork properly, knowing how to break down which Alaska statute (applies) and what to charge them with, and take control of the situation.”
On graduation day, both officers were ready to return home. There’s a question of how long they’ll stay in the job. Turnover is high, and who is policing can change dramatically day-to-day.
At the beginning of the year, Quinhagak had seven officers. When Peter and Charlie left for training, there were three officers still in the community. A few days after training began, two officers quit, leaving one.
KYUK called this lone officer, Jared Brown, in the middle of the afternoon on graduation day to see how he was doing. The call woke him up.
“It’s been busy, lack of sleep,” he said in a groggy voice. When asked how many hours of sleep he’s been able to get, Brown said, “Between two and five hours.”
Brown didn’t know how many calls a day he’d been responding to. He just said that they were coming “every day, all night long.”
Quinhagak officers are on call 24/7, yet they’re only paid for 40 hours a week. They usually work an additional 15 hours unpaid, and the pay isn’t much: just $15 an hour. Each has kids and partners to support. When asked how rural Alaska can increase law enforcement in its communities, each officer had the same answer: Pay us more.
“Most people don’t want to work because of how low of a pay it is,” Peter explained.
The person signing those paychecks agrees. Quinhagak Tribal President Darren Cleveland attended the graduation and couldn’t stop smiling.
“I am very proud,” Cleveland said after the ceremony. “I pressured them that, you guys need to come to this training.”
Cleveland wishes he could pay his officers more. He wishes his community had more law enforcement. But Cleveland said the tribe is paying as much as it can.
Until more funding becomes available, Cleveland hopes encouraging trainings like these will keep enough officers on the job in Quinhagak.