A recent spate of complaints about crimes and abuses perpetrated or ignored by rural law enforcement officials shines a light on a serious problem in Alaska: the fact that those in positions of power are prone to abusing that power, sometimes in ways or places that leave victims with little recourse when seeking justice.
Most recently, a Nome police dispatcher filed a complaint after she said her police colleagues failed to investigate after she was the victim of a videotaped rape in March 2017. Ultimately, she reported the incident to Alaska State Troopers out of concern that it would not be pursued locally. A few weeks previous, news had broken that a Nome officer who had punched a homeless woman while on duty had been shuffled into work as a dispatcher himself. Such incidents are hugely corrosive to public trust in law enforcement; they should be dealt with transparently and consequences for offenders should be serious.
Abuses by those in power is by no means only a problem in rural communities, of course. In a high-profile case in 2011,Anchorage police officer Anthony Rollins was convicted of raping five women in custody in 2008 and 2009; he was sentenced to 87 years in prison and the municipality settled claims related to the cases for $5.5 million.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of law enforcement officers across Alaska do difficult jobs well. The list of police officers and troopers killed in the line of duty underscores the risks those in the field accept when they go to work every day. It is no comfort to a victim of abuse, however, to know that they encountered the sole bad actor in the department. The only acceptable number of people in a law enforcement department who abuse their power is zero; that should be as true in Anchorage as it is in Alakanuk. If any abuses are tolerated or swept under the rug, it makes the lives of those who do the job well far more difficult: Suspicious residents lose confidence that incidents they report will be fairly investigated. Rumors spread. Those who actively seek to undermine credibility in law enforcement gain traction.
In small communities, where departments consist of only a few officers, this is especially true. And because of the isolated nature of communities not on the road system, it’s even more important that residents be able to trust those in positions of power — and remove them if that trust is violated. Standards for background checks for officers in some communities are spotty; Alaska should enforce a uniform minimum standard for such checks statewide to give residents confidence that bad actors aren’t being shuffled from one place to another without proper vetting. The Legislature, with the input of law enforcement and communities across the state, should make sure such standards are enacted.
With regard to abuses perpetrated on the job, the only answer is a transparent, thorough public accounting to restore public confidence proper action has been taken and that punishment, if necessary, fits the offense committed. When it comes to blatant abuses, simply assigning an offending officer desk duty or a demotion in rank isn’t usually sufficient to convince community members that the problem has been corrected and won’t reoccur.
Alaska’s law enforcement officers do a hard job in challenging conditions and cover areas far more expansive than most of their colleagues in the Lower 48. Alaskans’ faith and trust are crucial to their ability to do that job, so it’s vital that incidents of bad behavior by those in law enforcement positions be investigated and dealt with in as thorough and transparent a manner as possible.
— Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 9