Native Justice Roundtable spells out issues for Barr

Chugachmiut VPSO director Leonard Wallner: It was a start

U.S. Attorney General Wiliam Barr, right, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to his right, listen to a discussion of the need for federal funds for better law enforcement in rural Alaska at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. At far left is Tracy Toulou, head of the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice. Toulou is a descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for the Cordova Times

Tribal representatives gathered around the table gave U.S. Attorney General William Barr a chilling description of life in rural Alaska with a lack of law enforcement and asked for federal funding and tribal authorization to make their communities safer.

The roundtable discussion on May 29 at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium was a start, said Leonard Wallner, director of the Village Public Safety Officer program for Chugachmiut, the nonprofit entity providing health and social services to the seven Native tribes in the Chugach region.

Leonard Wallner, who oversees the Village Public Safety Officer program for Chugachmiut, speaks about a 2017 homicide in Southcentral Alaska where the suspect was loose for 23 hours before Alaska State Troopers arrived. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

“What I thought was accomplished was it was a good start, but that is precisely what it was, a start,” he said.

Barr, accompanied by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Alaska Attorney General Brian Schroder, listened to tribal reports on issues of domestic violence, rape, murder, substance abuse and the challenges of attracting and training village public safety officers. He agreed only to have another meeting with the group.

The session did allow for tribal representatives to convey their concerns and challenges to the highest office in the land, said Andy Teuber, chairman of ANTHC and also the Kodiak Area Native Association.

“It was an opportunity that we have waited for some time and we took advantage of it,” said Teuber, who told Barr “opioids are killing our people,” and of the need for collaboration between tribes and the federal government for a statewide rural justice system, with tribal entities providing officers, a court system and aid to crime victims.

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Teuber and other roundtable participants called for greater financial support to attract and train VPSOs and for tribal courts to resolve criminal issues at the local level. Several of those addressing Barr spoke of terrifying person experiences in communities lacking adequate law enforcement.

In one village in Southeast Alaska where there was no VPSO, said Wallner, there was a homicide in 2017 which resulted in lockdown status, with the suspect at large for 23 hours until state troopers arrived.

“That was unforgiveable, but not at all uncommon,” he said.

Julia Roberts-Hyslop, vice president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, right, tells U.S. Attorney for Alaska Brian Schroeder, center, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, left, about the murders of two people close to her during a roundtable discussion at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

“Generally speaking, the VPSO in a community is working independently without a robust support structure,” Teuber said. “There is a need for a better level of support and training is very important, in particular de-escalation tactics.”

“The problems that confront us, they are expansive,” he said. “Any attention we can get to shine light on these challenges, that attention is welcome, and we would look forward to an immediate response from the Department of Justice on these concerns.”

Meanwhile, Teuber said, he welcomed all the media attention from print and broadcast journalists who packed into the ANTHC conference room to cover the roundtable discussion.

If this produces results, then that is fantastic” he said. For now, he said, “we are making the best of what is inadequate resources.”

Teuber added that he hoped Gov. Mike Dunleavy would make law enforcement a priority. The governor had, in fact, proposed to cut $3 million from the state’s VPSO budget this year, citing the number of vacancies, but legislators rejected that proposal. 

Ralph Anderson, chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Association, Dillingham, tells participants in a roundtable discussion on crime in rural Alaska that his region currently has three VPSOs serving 31 villages in an area the size of Ohio. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

Training, salary and housing challenges make hiring and keeping VPSOs a challenge, several tribal representatives told Barr.

Substance abuse is rampant and services to treat this problem are underfunded, said Gail Shubert, president and chief executive officer of Bering Straits Native Corp. She spoke also of issues of rape, kidnapping and murder, including that of a young girl in Kotzebue.

Victor Joseph, chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said that in some cases the victim and the perpetrator may be living next door to each other.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We can’t rely on the start of Alaska to protect us. We need something here (so) that we can stand up for ourselves and help our own.”

Issues involving the cops and courts have always been a problem, said Ralph Anderson, chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Association.

“BBNA represents 31 villages in an area the size of Ohio, and at present has only three VPSOs,” he said.

“There has never been a VPSO in every one of our communities at the same time,” said Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Lucy Nelson.

“Imagine calling for help in an emergency and knowing help is hours away, and weather dependent,” she said. “The VPSOs need better pay, better housing too, plus rehabilitation for those with substance abuse issues.”

Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said some people in his region feel that they are of less value to the state than a moose.

“If a moose is shot out of season, Alaska State Troopers will be there in three hours,” he said.

When a 19-year-old woman was killed in one village, it took nearly a day for investigators to get to the community, he said.

Peterson also recalled being held at gunpoint in a Southwest Alaska village by a man high on methamphetamine.

“It took troopers six hours to get there,” he said.

Barr spent a total of four days in Alaska, including trips to Galena, Napaskiak and Bethel, where he was accompanied by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. On June 3, Barr announced that the District of Alaska had been selected to join the National Public Safety Partnership initiative. The PSP provides a framework or enhancing federal support of state, local and tribal law enforcement officials and prosecutors pursuing violent criminals specifically those involved in gun crimes, drug trafficking and gang violence.

Barr’s visit to Alaska came on the eve of a vote scheduled in Congress to cite Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn with contempt for failing to deliver the complete, unredacted report by Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. Mueller submitted the report to Barr on March 22 and a redacted version of the 448-page report was released publicly by the Justice Department on April 18. The redactions and their support materials are currently under President Donald Trump’s temporary “protective assertion” of executive privilege, so none of the redacted material may be given to Congress. This action came despite reassurance earlier from Barr that the president had confirmed that “he would not assert privilege over the special counsel’s report.” The Mueller report in part concludes that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was sweeping and systematic and violated U.S. criminal law. While the report did not include a judgment that Trump committed a crime, the report also did not exonerate Trump.

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