Time for elected sheriffs? A long-term solution



Gov. Michael Dunleavy has started his comprehensive public safety plan by putting an end to the insanity that was SB91.  However, the plan has yet to address the 1,200-pound polar bear in the room, which is the lack of any law enforcement in many villages in the Bush.

It is time that the State get serious about amending the Constitution to allow for elected sheriffs as part of a long term solution.

The U.S. Attorney General has announced a total grant of $42M to be applied to the problem. There has been as of yet no announcement as to how the money will be spent. If it goes to the villages directly, kiss it good-bye. 

Without addressing the need to upgrade both the courts and Corrections in the Bush, more police officers will produce more offenders, but there will be no way to process them, or imprison them, given the growing backlog of cases and the closure of Palmer Correctional Center.

It is unlikely that the $42 million would buy enough new police officers to make a difference, given the lack of qualified candidates. 

Neither the Alaska State Troopers, Corrections, or the National Guard are able to meet their recruiting quotas, because of the lack of qualified candidates. The integrity of America’s core demographic is rapidly disintegrating.

 Over 72 percent of those 17-24 across the country are ineligible for military service due to physical, criminal, and/or education disqualifications. 

In Alaska, it is the 17-34-year-old demographic living in the Bush that reflects the systemic failures in our education system, the collapse of the family, and a lack of respect for education and the law.  Greater than 99 percent of those ages 17-34 living in the Bush are ineligible for military service due to education and/or criminal record disqualifications.

If you can’t enlist, you certainly cannot hope to become a police officer or corrections officer.

 So, how can this $42 million produce any benefit or act to relieve the suffering of those abused? The bodies are simply not there to provide the qualified first responders.  And, there is a decided lack of criminal justice infrastructure to support a major increase in law enforcement in the Bush.

The regional Native corporations and the village corporations need to be willing to act to work in concert with the state and federal government to provide the criminal justice and law enforcement facilities, mental health and substance abuse facilities and the training for personnel in the Bush. And, it is time they paid their fair share of the cost of providing those facilities.  The onus would also be upon the organized an unorganized boroughs to bear part of  the cost of their sheriff’s departments.

In the face of the law enforcement crisis in the Bush, the federal government continues to act to restrict Alaska’s ability to produce revenue from royalties from mineral, timber, and fish and to restrict tourism by maintaining the abuse of our Statehood Compact that is the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — ANILCA. 

Either the federal government cough up sufficient funding, and $42 million is just a drop in this bucket, or the federal government can repeal ANILCA and return the management of federal lands to the state, end any other restrictive land use changes, and let the state have at the process of putting the land to work for the people.  In either case, the federal government has a tremendous liability in this issue.

The reality of the Bush is the lack of law enforcement manpower, the lack of qualified applicants, geography, time and distance. The sheriffs and their deputies would need to be more peace officer than police officer, like the old Territorial Police. 

Alaska Police Standards Council standards would need to be set aside for the sheriffs departments until time, money, and qualified candidates were forthcoming. 

The Department of Corrections might have to ignore APSC standards for Bush positions for the same reason.

The courts would need to get serious about televising court proceedings to allow an offender in any Alaska village, town or city to appear in court.  More jails would need to be built with facilities to televise a court proceeding and to house corrections and sheriff’s deputies on their “rounds” between villages. Every court room in the state should have a televised hearing capability.

The sheriff would be elected for a four-year term by the qualified voters of a borough or unorganized borough. 

The Village Public Safety Officer program would end, and the VPSOs would become deputies providing a core for future expansion.

An amendment authorizing an elected sheriff’s office would give accountability to the people of the organized and unorganized boroughs in how their law enforcement operated.

The villages would see sheriffs and deputies more than they would the Alaska State Troopers. The deputies would be known to the villagers and sufficiently trained as VPSOs to serve as “frontier” deputies to a sheriff.

The burden in the Bush would be reduced for the Alaska State Troopers.

 The fed’s $42 million would either be a good start to a long term solution, or a really good time for a few families in the Bush.

Larry Wood is a 65-year Alaska resident living on Lazy Mountain.


  1. The first thing to do is create a real Constitution and then form a County to elect a Sheriff by we the people which is an officer instead of Troopers or police who are only hired employees. If you read an I-9 form it will tell you this. Everyone working in government fills out an I-9 Form. A Borough in English law is only a fortified town. Seymour Marvin Mills Jr. sui juris

  2. Larry I agree with a lot of what you have to say, especially the part about handing over$45 million to the same entities that failed in the last thirty years. That money certainly would be history.
    After 30 odd years on the YK Delta I’m seeing the States failure as having over 30 State Troopers with their living quarters in Bethel as a large part of the problem. The State dropped the ball when they didn’t convert all the national guard buildings in each Village into trooper and VPSO housing.
    The problem the Troopers have is that they are ? percent reactive. Maybe because they all camp in Bethel. That needs to change.
    There’s still some Guard buildings left that haven’t been given to the Villages. Those that remain need to be turned into comfortable housing with an out laying building for four wheelers, snogos, trailored 1000 gallon tanks with pumps for fire protection.
    VPSO’s need more than clapboard houses with honey buckets and Troopers need not be sleeping on the floors in the schools.
    Troopers and VPSO need to be able to just show up announced and hang out for unlimited days on end. That in itself will alleviate a lot of need for prison space. That requires a living and working space and equipment to operate with that they don’t have to borrow from the Villages to get around and do their job.
    I don’t think creating another bureaucracy, being a sheriff department has enough advantage to justify itself on the YK Delta.

    We just need to rethink how we use what we have.

    • Good points. My father was a Territorial Police Officer in the 50s. What you state is true. However, the Troopers are not like the TPs, they are organized in posts, with the Trooper assigned to that post. Some live in the communities, but they seem to be few and far between these days. The idea was to give the folks that live in the Bush some degree of say in the policing out there, because the Troopers are reactive. Further, the sheriff’s office reduces the state’s presence. We will either pay the Piper for more troopers, or have a degree of say through the sheriff’s depts. Using the VPSOs and acting as peace officers should end the us and them malarkey so familiar to anyone having anything to do with cops these days. I admire the Troopers, but they are not the Territorial Police, whose officers had to depend upon Alaskans.

  3. Why is it that every solution to a Bush village problem is paid for by people not there? Isn’t it about time the village people and their native corporations put some skin in the game? One solution is for them to tax themselves through the creation of boroughs and incorporated villages.

    Another consideration is that police officers from the villages will fail to the extent the VPSO program fails: they will not pursue and arrest relatives. A law enforcement program to work effectively will require non-resident cops. And therein lies the rub because it is highly unlikely villages can recruit enough non-resident police to make a difference.

    The grim statistic mentioned in the article that, “greater than 99 percent of those ages 17-34 living in the Bush are ineligible for military service due to education and/or criminal record disqualifications” is the core reason for crime in the Bush villages. Consider that those young adults will never have meaningful employment. Essentially their every desire will be satisfied by drugs, thievery or welfare. Through prison or welfare they are our problem for the rest of their lives.

    • The onus is on the residents of the boroughs and unorganized boroughs, as the people who live in the jurisdiction elect the sheriff and have to pay for the dept. However, the feds have screwed us with ANILCA and rather than allow Alaska to develop road systems, have kept much 3d world by virtue of isolation.
      I agree as the folks, they have to deal with their problems, but the lack of LE prevents redress of some crimes and gives the advantage to the predator.
      Not going to be easy, but the AST can’t do it all.

  4. Agreed, we need to do something but prepare to end up in tribal court and beyond. Men are knocking the hell out of women. Men…..you never EVER hit a woman!!!! Drugs are flowing in virtually unrestricted. Children and elders are often victims of the abuse. It’s going to take a consortium of both state, federal and tribal authorities to truly put an end to this epidemic. Troopers alone can’t do it because many clam up when they enter a village to investigate. VPSO’s are often family of the perps. It will take some outside authority in the way of a sheriff or marshal with supreme constitutional authority to go in and knock some heads. Then, be prepared to build more prisons.

    • Forkner, In principle I agree with you comment, but we have not been able to prevent drugs from entering the United States or Alaska, how will we accomplish that in the villages? As long as the villages do not have an economic basis for existence all the dysfunctions identified in the article and comments will continue.

      • Villages have smaller borders. Most only one way in or out. I talked to a well-known Bush pilot in our area asking him why he hauls booze and drugs into the village in people’s luggage. He told me it’s not his job to search their luggage and in a way I guess he is right.

  5. So 99 per cent of the 17 – 34 year olds in the bush have not had adequate judgment to keep themselves eligible for military service but they will have good judgment in selecting a sheriff?
    The sheriffs should be appointed by the governor. And no standards should ever be set aside for any law enforcement at any level.

    • I’ve been ASDF. I was trained as a state military police constable. My father was a Territorial and Alaska State police officer. He served before the APSC, no psych eval. The Army does not ‘psych’ eval their people.
      The frontier law enforcement concept, peace officers, is needed, because it will be years before there are qualified people to go the APSC route. Too, what has improved with APSC over the years? It is the APSC or similar standard officer training, including psych evals, who have been killing unarmed civilians. I’m not referring to the Trayvon Martins, or Browns.

  6. I like the idea of having elected law enforcement in local jurisdictions, whatever you might end up calling them. And adjusting local qualifications to the available human resources.

    But I would sure be cautious about funding this plan via federal grants. The grants are fine by themselves. But once you build infrastructure with that cash, when another administration comes to power & cuts it, it then falls to the taxpayers to make up the difference. OR, lawyers see an opportunity to sue the local jurisdictions for certain perceived wrongs for the simple reason employment qualification requirements are less for employees than in more urban areas.

    Its kind of like how Alaska has built other infrastructure with oil money. Now that the oil money is becoming less that infrastructure is still there and powerful forces don’t want it to go away…hence the major power struggles we are now seeing between the Governor, the legislature, the courts, the citizenry & the taxpayers.

    But I like this general idea.

  7. I feel compelled to add a little more.

    The real problem is the Federal Government on the YK Delta. Just like who’s going to manage fish and game resources, the Feds have hamstrung the the State in every manner possible with the wishy washy sovereignty question. We have Villages out here that State Troopers have to have an invite from the Village council , just to land and do their job.

    The sovereignty issue was settled with ANILCA. There’s no reservations on YK Delta. Hence there’s no need for wasting money on tribal courts. They are simply an instrument of the same people that are going to steal the money in the Villages.

    No election for sheriff is gonna help out here, for several reasons.

    Without housing and office space, there will be no difference than the 30 odd Troopers sleeping in Bethel every night. Without proactive policing, nothing, I repeat, nothing will ever change.

    We have $45 million, then spend it on recruitment of veterans for the VPSO program that should operate hand in hand with the State Troopers.

  8. Nothing wrong with society that more government and taxes can’t solve!
    Just who will elect these “sheriffs”, and what if nobody wants to be “Sheriff”?
    What specifically are “sheriffs” going to do that State Troopers can’t or won’t do?
    Who’s stuck with the bill for paying “sheriffs”, and what if villages and Native corporations don’t want to pay their “fair share”, like what they’re not doing with the bums in Anchorage?
    Who’ll adjudicate turf wars between State Troopers and “sheriffs”?
    What the hell does “Alaska Police Standards Council standards would need to be set aside…” mean, government-sanctioned suspension of Constitutional rights until… whenever?
    Back to the drawing board, my friend…

  9. While I wholeheartedly agree with this Author, these two statements might very well sink this idea:
    1. “The regional Native corporations and the village corporations need to be willing to act to work in concert with the state and federal government to provide the criminal justice and law enforcement facilities, mental health and substance abuse facilities and the training for personnel in the Bush.”
    2. “And, it is time they paid their fair share of the cost of providing those facilities.”

    IMO … It’ll be a long time to come before any Native or Village Corp take ownership / accountability as well as pay their fair share.

  10. Maybe it’s time to look at how we evaluate criminal convictions. Certainly, people like sex offenders and career larcenists should never be able to get their hands on badges. But what about somebody who shoplifted or got into a fist fight at 19, took his punishment, and kept his nose clean for several years. Should we disqualify that person from a career in law enforcement? I think not. However, Alaska currently has a regulation on the books that prohibits an individual from having access to the State criminal justice information system if he has ever in his life been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of moral turpitude – and that standard can apply to the majority of misdemeanor convictions. Even the FBI applies less rigorous background requirements to its criminal justice information systems.

  11. As a former Chief with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office I agree that we need to have the legal authority to establish Borough wife elected Sheriff’s Offices. The Sheriff is a Constitutional, elected Office that can be recalled by “We The People!” I have checked into the possibilities of establishing a Sheriff’s Office but there was no political support for my suggestion. I have spoken to the National Sheriff’s Association and they were willing to help if there was support. I was told by a previous Borough Mayor that it would never happen if he had anything to do with it. In my opinion, we need to have a local, Borough wide Sheriff’s Office to protect the people. The Alaska State Troopers just don’t have the man power to protect the citizens of Alaska so something needs to happen soon.

  12. Both the Troopers and the Correctional Officers were in my labor relations portfolio for most of my State career. I represented the State in negotiations and interest arbitration with them and I handled their grievances and grievance arbitrations. Though I never actually supervised or managed them, I had a great deal of influence on those who did. I also spent some years working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the mid-Eighties so I have more experience than most in rural Alaska.

    It’s not just the rural areas that would have difficulty recruiting qualified law enforcement officers. The two most valuable qualifications you can have in Alaska are the ability to pee in a bottle and pass a background check. Add to that the ability to pass a psych eval and meet physical fitness standards and law enforcement officers are extremely difficult to recruit and retain even when recruiting for urban assignments or in the case of Troopers a relatively short period where the candidate is liable to be forced into a rural assignment.

    Even with the highly regulated paramilitary structure of both DPS and COC, both have tremendous difficulty maintaining adequate supervision of employees outside the urban areas. It’s not quite “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it’s close; too close sometimes and sometimes bad things have happened. The State had to limit forced transfers of Troopers back in Hammond or Sheffield; the limits were already there when I started in ’87. Troopers can only be force transferred to a post, and this is really about rural posts, in their first five years of service. You have three kinds of employees in rural assignments: those who genuinely like the lifestyle, some of whom have family connections, some who like the freedom, or better said, lack of supervision too much, and those who can’t wait for the assignment to end. Having done some of it myself and my wife having done a lot of it, remote supervision is difficult even when the employees are in an office in an urban area; it’s almost impossible when they could be anywhere in an area larger than most states.

    I grew up in the world of the elected Southern sheriff of the Fifties and Sixties; they’re the stuff of song and story for a reason. In those days there was little state or federal oversight of them, and they’d either be a corrupt, get along-go along “good ole’ boy” or the electorate would find somebody who would. There is no way the locals will tolerate anyone having law enforcement authority who isn’t a local and a get along-go along sort. They sure aren’t going to tolerate somebody “not from around here” who can get a Police Standards Council certification. They won’t much tolerate permanently assigned Troopers; that’s why the State has backed away from having many of them.

    While there are laws on the books today that would prevent some of the past abuses by local sheriffs and even federal marshals at one time, the span of control is such that those laws will rarely be enforced. With a State hired and supervised force, if something bad happens, the word will get to headquarters somehow and eventually and some suits from headquarters will show up and tune somebody up over it. If something bad happens involving a locally elected and hired force it is unlikely anyone will ever hear about it unless it happens to the wrong person and somebody outside the local area hears about it. Even then that somebody would have to be well connected. Even with the State’s system sometimes local leaders have been able to reach out and touch State political authority and interfere with law enforcement; you just have to be inside the government, way inside the government, to know about it.

    The problems in rural Alaska stem from much deeper issues than the lack of a law enforcement presence. Putting a locally elected and hired law enforcement system in place will give you a system that reflects the deeper problems rather than solves them.

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