Residents of the Northwest Arctic village of Noorvik, where there is no village public safety officer, say their town is feeling increasingly unsafe. Describing a “dangerous escalation of violence,” villagers have drafted a letter to local, state and federal officials asking for permanent law enforcement.
“Threats of violence are heard on the radio daily,” Angie Sturm said at the last Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly meeting. “I don’t let my daughter go out. She’s not allowed to go outside by herself.”
Sturm serves as finance director for the borough, but she was speaking as a concerned Noorvik resident speaking about how unsafe she and other residents feel, she said.
“There was an incident where there were two individuals shooting at a home, an occupied home where there were children inside,” Sturm said. “And then a couple weeks later, they had an arson of an occupied home, again where children were present.”
Sturm authored a letter signed by 77 Noorvik residents directed at officials including the mayor of the town, Governor Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska congressional delegation saying the community wants an Alaska State Trooper and Village Public Safety Officer posted to the village.
Staffing for VPSO positions has been difficult in recent years for the Northwest Arctic Borough. Recently, though, the borough hired three officers to serve in Kobuk, Noatak and Kiana. The new hires just began their training in Sitka, according to Aucha Kameroff, the borough’s public safety director. Before the new hires, it had been months since there was a VPSO in any Northwest Arctic village.
Kameroff says there are currently seven state troopers that serve Kotzebue and the surrounding villages. However, during the assembly meeting, Kameroff recounted an experience with a trooper official highlighting how inconsistent troopers can be.
“I said, ‘why can’t people from the troopers office, during their work week, go to the village and do their work out of there?’ And she said they’re not available to do that,” Kameroff said. “While at the same time, one of the troopers was sent from this region, from Kotzebue, to go down to cover in Dillingham. I said we have a dire need and this is what’s going on in our region, and then one of our troopers is sent to Dillingham?”
Kameroff expressed the need to continue to pressure the troopers to maintain an effective presence in the region.
VPSOs are hired by local regional nonprofits — in this case the Northwest Arctic Borough. They get funding from the legislature. Last year, Governor Dunleavy cut $6 million from the program, saying that the funds came from unfilled positions. Borough Assembly member Walter Sampson said that at a recent Alaska Municipal League meeting, the governor’s message was different.
“His message was ‘if you have qualified VPSOs that are willing to come to work, let me know. We’ll hire them,’” Sampson said.
Dunleavy was set to call in to the borough meeting, but spokesman Jeff Turner said a scheduling conflict prevented that from happening. A request for comment on the letter from Dunleavy unanswered as of this report.
In an email, Megan Peters with the Alaska Department of Public Safety said that to get a VPSO in the village, the village of Noorvik would need to coordinate with the Northwest Arctic Borough, since they are the grantees of the program and have the “funding and authority to determine where to place VPSOs that they hire.”
As communities grapple with keeping their residents safe, borough officials say alcohol bootlegging and the introduction of drugs like meth into the villages are exacerbating the problems. Assembly member Sandy Shroyer-Beaver noted that the tight-knit nature of the villages makes reporting crimes an issue as well.
“None of us want to call on a family member or a friend,” Shroyer-Beaver said. “But if we seriously want to make some of these changes, you can’t expect the borough to save you. We can do our part to hire a trooper or get a VPSO, but community members also need to come forward and start assisting.”
While not immediately offering a solution for Noorvik, the borough says they will continue to try to bolster their VPSO program with grants and assistance from the state.
Currently a legislative working group headed by Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat who represents the Northwest Arctic among other communities, and Rep. Chuck Kopp, an Anchorage Republican, is working with the Department of Public Safety to revise state statutes for the VPSO program which haven’t been updated in decades. Supporters hope it will lead to more effective law enforcement in villages statewide.
While she’s not optimistic, Sturm says she will keep the issue alive until it’s solved.
“I’m going to continue to place pressure on this body, on this state and on our regional organizations until we get somebody in Noorvik,” Sturm said.