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Public safety in rural Alaska questioned as Dunleavy proposes cuts to VPSO program

Apr 4, 2019

A VPSO vehicle parked in Nome. (Photo by Matthew Smith/KNOM)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy says public safety across Alaska is his number one priority, yet his actions to fulfill that commitment seem counterintuitive to some among legislators, like state Sen Donny Olson, and the public alike.

KNOM highlights a recent incident in a Norton Sound community to show the current state of public safety in Western Alaska.

In early February, Kyle Mike of Nome violated his conditions of release while living in Emmonak. Alaska State Troopers say Mike was arrested Feb. 6 for multiple charges, including harassment.

Megan Peters, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, explains the alleged crimes he committed.

“Right before midnight, the Emmonak VPSO responded to a disturbance in Emmonak, and during that encounter, he learned that a man by the name of Kyle Mike, 35-years-old of Nome, had trespassed at a residence and allegedly touched someone in an offensive manner. We knew that he was on conditions of release and he was taken into custody for criminal trespass, harassment, and violating conditions of release.”

According to charging documents, a woman living in the residence where Mike was allegedly trespassing called the Emmonak Village Public Safety Officer. The woman told the VPSO that Mike had touched her in an offensive manner by “laying on top of her and asking her to kiss him.” Documents say after being told multiple times to leave the house, Mike refused and the VPSO arrested him.

As a registered sex offender, Mike was required to update his place of residence when he relocated to Emmonak. According to troopers, however, the 35-year-old moved to the community in January and had not added that new information to the sex offender registry weeks later.

It was after the Feb. 6 incident that Troopers became aware that Mike was not complying with his sex offender registry requirements.

Peters said the responsibility to stay in compliance was Mike's, not the troopers’ job to update his registration information as a sex offender.

“The way the registry works is when someone is convicted of a qualifying offense, they are given parameters on what they are required to do and register with the registry. The onus is on them to keep themselves in compliance, and certainly the registry sends out relevant information to help keep them in compliance, but if they’re violating it, we don’t have somebody that is constantly going around and checking every single one of the sex offenders (in the state).”

Keeping all sex offenders in compliance throughout Alaska is not exactly feasible. The office for the sex offender registry keeps a list of non-compliant offenders. Peters said it is updated monthly.

According to Peters, some sex offenders in Alaska live in communities or areas where there are no street addresses, so locating an individual can be difficult. Peters says that's why local reports and communications between law enforcement agencies are so helpful.

“When we get a tip that somebody is doing something that is believed to be outside of their conditions, and it’s reported to us, we can follow up on that and verify. It could just be a paperwork misunderstanding; it could be that the tip we got was wrong and there’s nothing that person did, so no action is taken; but if it is found that they are in violation, and depending on the severity of it, they could be charged with that additional crime of failure to register.”

Rochelle Liedike is deputy U.S. Marshal for the District of Alaska. One of the missions of her office is to ensure sex offenders’ compliance with the registry, and to continue verifying that info is up to date.

According to Liedike, the U.S. Marshals in Alaska, along with AST and local law enforcement, conduct compliance checks or sweeps all around the state. Liedike says these happen a minimum of three times a year in order to locate non-compliant offenders and ensure other offenders are still compliant.

There can be gaps in the oversight of sex offenders, though, especially if they are not keeping their registration up-to-date. Theoretically, Peters said an individual could be on the non-compliant list for months if law enforcement doesn’t have an updated address or location to be able to find them and verify their compliance.

Depending on the individual case, sometimes sex offenders from other states may not be required to register in Alaska, allowing them to fly under the radar.

KTVA reported on one such individual who reoffended once he moved to Alaska. Generally, Peters said sex offenders are doing everything they can to stay in compliance and live their lives successfully in the state.

According to Peters, the database of sex offenders in Alaska is the main driver to help law enforcement agencies in the state track down non-compliant individuals. Peters said five employees with the Department of Public Safety handle the paperwork and details needed to update the sex offender registry.

In terms of “boots on the ground,” right now, there are several vacancies for state troopers and village public safety officers positions across the Bering Strait region and the state, leaving fewer people to locate non-compliant sex offenders like Kyle Mike of Nome.

And on top of that, Dunleavy included stipulations in his recently proposed budget that will directly impact existing law enforcement positions.

The governor’s press secretary Matt Shuckerow said that overall the governor does not want to handle another year with a state deficit by drawing more money from state savings.

“The VPSO program, we recognize, is a good quality program that provides services in communities across Alaska, rural communities," Shuckerow said. "The program peaked with about a hundred VPSOs in 2011, but since that time, the number of VPSOs has declined, and since December 2017, there have been about 42 vacancies in the VPSO program.”

Shuckerow said so many VPSO vacancies have gone unfilled for years for several reasons, including recruitment and retention issues.

With that in mind, Dunleavy has proposed increasing the Alaska State Trooper’s salary to help recruit and retain staff while also filling about 40 vacant positions. The governor has not proposed funding for additional staff outside of those vacancies, nor has he proposed ways to recruit and retain more VPSOs.

In an interview with Anchorage Daily News, Department of Public Safety administrative services director Dan Spencer told lawmakers he is confident the trooper recruits coming through the academy will fill all of the Trooper vacancies.

In addition, the governor has suggested that $3 million be cut from their budget, which he says the VPSO program has not spent for years. Despite this proposed cut, Shuckerow says public safety is still the main focus for Dunleavy, but he offered no specific solutions to help bolster public safety in rural communities.

“When I say public safety is the governor’s top priority, he means it," Shuckerow said. "And he’s made that very clear in his speech to the Legislature, his speeches to the Alaskan people, in his commentary, his presentations and press conferences, and also in the legislation he’s introduced. There are likely going to be some improvements, some needs for changes that can ensure that rural communities can remain safe, and so, those also materialize in the form of legislation.”

Shuckerow is referring to are the four Senate bills proposed by the governor to address crime.

One of them, SB 35, would, among other things, require a sex offender registered in another state to register in Alaska, regardless of whether the individual’s prior conviction is similar or not.

Although this will address some loopholes in the state’s registration requirements for sex offenders, it is unclear how many sex offenses it will deter in rural communities across the state. Shuckerow reiterated that the governor’s administration believes having all current AST positions filled will help public safety throughout Alaska.

“He cares about public safety, not just in urban areas, but also in rural communities and all across the state. So his commissioner of the Department of Public Safety is working on an array of issues, but part of that, as well, is closing these major loopholes that have plagued all of our state, that have allowed our criminals and perpetrators to remain in their communities and not being held accountable. And we want to make sure people are safe.”

According to the Uniform Crime Report released last year, crime in Alaska has risen by more than 25 percent in recent years. And with less funding for VPSOs, and no plans from the governor to increase the number of State Troopers in Western Alaska, public safety in the region could be negatively affected.

As mentioned earlier, during the harassment incident involving Kyle Mike in February, a VPSO was the first law enforcement officer to respond to the scene.

Emmonak also has two Alaska State Troopers posted in their own building in the community.

Most Bering Strait communities have neither VPSOs nor troopers currently stationed there, including but not limited to Diomede, Elim, Gambell, Savoonga, Koyuk, St. Michael, Shaktoolik, Shishmaref, Stebbins, Teller and Wales.

Without VPSOs or state troopers present in the majority of populated areas throughout Western Alaska, who will be the responding law enforcement agency in those communities?

When it comes to public safety, Alaska legislators will ultimately decide how much of Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts and crime bills remain intact over the next month or so.