An Alaskan Village Where Every Cop Has Been Convicted of Domestic Violence

The Yukon River community of Mountain Village. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

Dozens of convicted criminals have been hired as cops in Alaska communities. Often, they are the only applicants. In Stebbins, every cop has a criminal record, including the chief.

[Ed Note] This is a difficult situation to grasp; that this exists in one of our nation’s states. To me, it is a solid example of how some American citizens are not receiving the protections imbedded in our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Who should be our police officers? How should they be trained, supervised and regulated? What’s the answer here? It would seem to me that increasing the number of officers in the Alaska State Patrol so that they could reach and protect these outlying communities would be one, quick answer. But then, who pays? Yet who pays now?

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LAWLESS: Sexual Violence in Alaska

by Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News

 July 18, 11:30 a.m. EDT

[This article was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.]

STEBBINS, Alaska — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.

Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes.

“My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people.

He was wrong.

On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help.

“Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”

The short answer is yes. With low pay and few people wanting the jobs, it is that easy in some small Alaska communities for a convicted felon, even someone who has admitted to a sex crime or who was recently released from prison, to be hired with public money to work as a city police officer.

It’s also a violation of state public safety regulations, yet it happens all the time.

The village of Stebbins, along the Norton Sound coast. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind.

The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook…

ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News reported in May that one in three Alaska communities has no local cops of any kind. In June, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska, announcing $10.5 million in Justice Department spending to support village police…

A handmade sign in the Stebbins public safety building, where village police officers, hired by the city, hold inmates and prepare for village patrols. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

In the villages where there are cops, a different problem has emerged. A first-of-its-kind investigation by the Daily News and ProPublica has found that at least 14 cities in Alaska have employed police officers whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under Department of Public Safety regulations. The news organizations identified more than 34 officers who should have been ineligible for these jobs. In all but three cases, the police hires were never reported by the city governments to the state regulatory board, as required.

In eight additional communities, local tribal governments have hired tribal police officers convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes.

All 42 of these tribal and city police officers have rap sheets that would prevent them from being hired by the Anchorage Police Department and its urban peers, as Alaska state troopers or even as private security guards most anywhere else in the United States. Many remain on the job today.

“It’s outrageous that we have a situation where we have a, such a lack of public safety that communities are resorting to hiring people who have the propensity for violence,” said Melanie Bahnke, a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives, which represents 191 tribes. “And placing them in a position where they have control over people and possibly could victimize the victims further…”

The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess.

Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest.

Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country…

The story of how Alaska communities came to quietly hire criminals as police officers, without consequence or oversight, is the story of how cash-poor local governments found themselves without law enforcement and few options…

Alaska Native leaders once sued to force the state to provide armed, trained police in villages, but their lawsuit failed in state court. That leaves VPOs and TPOs to pick up the slack. They tend to be younger, paid less and have less training than traditional police.

VPOs, such as those in Stebbins, are mainly expected to enforce city laws such as curfews and misdemeanors. In practice, however, they must sometimes handle life-and-death encounters such as standoffs and suicide threats. TPOs perform a similar role but are employed by federally recognized tribes and are not regulated by the state…

But lack of funding for cops isn’t the only problem. Many villages have no housing for police, no secure jail cells or no public safety building. When Barr visited the state in May to see the problem for himself, he called the lack of services one of the most pressing public safety needs in the United States.

Our review also found that villages have routinely ignored — or said they were unaware of — laws that require training and bar people with certain criminal records from being hired…

In village after village, troubling examples abound…

Stebbins, an Inupiaq and Yup’ik village, survived a generation of monstrous sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and church volunteers. It is plagued by 12% unemployment, and its lone grocery store charges twice as much for food as it costs in Anchorage. As the lack of police data regarding missing and murdered indigenous women raises concerns nationwide, residents of Stebbins and neighboring Saint Michael say the suspicious death of a local woman, 19-year-old Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood, in 2017 remains unsolved.

The city offers no benefits to part-time officers who walk into life-and-death emergencies. They are untrained and unarmed, their only equipment a cellphone and a pair of handcuffs. The police department, like most homes, has no flush toilets or running water.

Next to hauling waste, residents say being a cop is one of the worst jobs in town.

In 2001, the mayor of Stebbins was shot in the face as part of a robbery scheme involving a 20-year-old man who had been working as a VPO despite jail sentences for assault and animal cruelty.

“I was not very fond of that [hire] in the first place,” then-Mayor Robert Ferris told the Daily News at the time, having survived the shooting. But, he reasoned, “In a place like this you take any help you can get.”

“After serving time in prison for his role in the mayor’s shooting, the former VPO returned to Stebbins and was eventually hired back by the city as a police officer, current city officials said.

“Little has changed in recent years…”

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Read ProPublica’s full and investigation HERE

Kyle Hopkins is an investigative reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. Email him at khopkins@adn.com and follow him on Twitter at @kylehopkinsAK.

ProPublica research reporting fellow Alex Mierjeski and Anchorage Daily News reporters Alex DeMarbanTegan HanlonMichelle Theriault BootsAnnie Zak and Jeff Parrott contributed to this report.

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