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Full-time trooper in town a blessing for 2 Alaska villages

Jill Burke

At the just-concluded Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell spoke of his ongoing commitment to safe families and communities across the state. More than lip service, he offered proof: the staffing of full-time trooper posts in two villages struggling with lawlessness and violence.

Now Emmonak, located on the Yukon River close to the Bering Sea, and Selawik, about 670 miles northwest of Anchorage at the mouth of the Selawik River, have dedicated trooper posts staffed daily. 

"When there is no authority,” said Selawik city councilman Raven Sheldon, “things kind of get out of hand."

Emmonak’s new trooper arrived in October 2010 after the post had been unfilled nearly a year. Selawik’s trooper arrived in February, the first time Alaska State Troopers had established a full-time presence in the village of some 850 people. Both villages are largely Alaska Native communities that troopers have served from outlying hubs in the past.

"I think they have been well received by the community," said Sheldon, who’s also a tribal transportation planner. "Just their presence in town has slowed activity."

When law enforcement makes itself a part of the community, better relationships tend to develop. Locals and elders are more likely to offer respect and support. The newly stationed troopers, who rotate two week, 12-hour-a-day shifts, are making an effort to show up at community events and meet folks, Sheldon said. "They are well respected," he said, adding that it always helps when outsiders try to "understand our culture and traditions and try to blend in."

But in these small communities, it is possible to be too close to the population you're policing.

In addition to the troopers now present in Selawik, the village should be able to rely upon two unarmed police officers, too:  a village public safety officer, trained by state troopers, and the local village police officer, paid for locally. But Selawik recently lost it's VPSO, and has had a hard time hanging on to VPOs, Sheldon said. It can difficult to enforce laws in a small community full of friends and family, and Sheldon believes those jobs should earn more money and receive more support. Just having VPOs around to help "shoo kids home," makes a difference, he said.

The support of organizations outside of Selawik made the trooper hiring possible. The Kotzebue Housing Authority gave up living space in one of its Selawik-based apartment buildings. And the Alaska National Guard provided office space. 

Sheldon called the latest efforts a "step in the right direction," thankful that the village is no longer living through a period with no regular trooper presence, no VPSO, and minimal VPO coverage.