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'Outrageous': Convicted criminals serve as Alaskan police amid public safety crisis, investigation finds

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Alaska is a sprawling state with a population about the size of Seattle, but a staggering 59 percent of adult women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.
Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

Dozens of police officers with criminal records have worked in Alaska’s cities, despite a state law that should have disqualified them, an investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found. 

The findings of at least 14 city police departments employing more than 34 convicted criminals came nearly a month after U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a public safety emergency in the state, highlighting disproportionate rates of violence and sexual assault

Local tribal governments have also hired tribal police officers convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes in an additional eight communities, the publications reported Thursday. Women in remote villages already face extraordinary barriers in reporting and dealing with sexual assault, USA TODAY reported last month, such as lacking access to victim support services.

In the rural city of Stebbins, for example, the Daily News reported that all seven officers have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges in the past 10 years. 

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The rap sheets for all 42 tribal and city police officers would’ve prevented their hiring at the Anchorage Police Department and its urban peers, the Division of Alaska State Troopers and private security guards nearly anywhere else in the United States, the news organizations reported. City governments did not report the hires to the state regulatory board as required in all but three of the cases, and many remain on the job. 

Melanie Bahnke, a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives representing 191 tribes, related the issue to a frontier mentality. 

“It’s outrageous that we have a situation where we have such a lack of public safety that communities are resorting to hiring people who have the propensity for violence,” Bahnke told the news organizations. “And placing them in a position where they have control over people and possibly could victimize the victims further.”

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State troopers, limited by budget cuts threatening services from education to transportation, are stretched thin. Five troopers in northwestern Alaska cover an area roughly the size of Ohio, USA TODAY reported. They commute to hard-to-reach areas when weather permits and only after they’ve procured one of the state’s few planes. 

In an effort to hire and train tribal and village police officers, the U.S. Department of Justice allocated $6 million to Alaska last month. The department also aims to award $4.5 million to fund 20 officer positions, plus equipment and training, for Alaska Natives by the end of July. 

Contributing: Lindsay Schnell, USA TODAY 

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