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Western Alaska grapples with alcohol-fueled crime

By Lisa Demer, McClatchy Newspapers –


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Disturbing new numbers accent what law enforcement, social agencies, Native leaders and politicians have long realized about Western Alaska: It struggles with far more than its share of violence and family dysfunction.

A picture of the challenge emerges from the Alaska State Troopers just-completed annual report for 2010.

The sparsely populated, remote area logged between one-third and one-half of all cases handled by troopers involving sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor, or assault.

If the cases were distributed evenly by population across Alaska, the numbers for Western Alaska would be far, far lower.

The common thread is alcohol abuse, troopers said.

“It’s frustrating because you are trying to make a difference. You are trying to make an impact on these numbers,” said Trooper Capt. Barry Wilson, who heads the trooper detachment for the region. “But it takes time.”

Troopers’ C Detachment covers a stretch of Alaska bigger than the state of California, an area from the coast of the Bering Sea inland and from Kodiak Island to north of the Arctic Circle. It includes the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Aleutian chain, and communities around the hubs of Bethel, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Nome and Kodiak.

Local police departments, not troopers, handle cases in hubs, some organized boroughs, bigger villages and urban centers including the cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

But considering only cases handled by troopers, the skewed crime numbers are apparent.

More than 40,000 people in the Western Alaska detachment rely on troopers as their primary provider of public safety. That’s about 17 percent of the 240,000 people who live in areas served mainly by troopers.

Yet according to troopers, C detachment in 2010 handled:

—1,144 of 3,775 assaults investigated by troopers. That’s 30 percent. Almost 450 of those Western Alaska assaults were felonies, trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

—171 of 322 sexual assaults. That’s more than half.

—172 of 367 sexual abuse of a minor cases. That’s 47 percent.

—23 of 83 suicides, or 28 percent.

Western Alaska includes some of the poorest villages. Other parts of the state see more burglaries and thefts, more vandalism and drunken driving. But no other regions come close to it for reports of violence and sex crimes.

Troopers in Western Alaska say they often must deal with more serious crimes than an urban police officer and need more specialized training —  for instance in how to interview Alaska Native children and in crime scene investigations.

The nature and impact of crimes sometimes are different than in urban areas, too, troopers say.

Rapes, for instance, usually are viewed as crimes of power and control, Wilson said. But in rural Alaska, sex crimes more often are connected to alcohol abuse and seem more situational, he said. Some perpetrators are viewed as the backbone of the village, the person who helps others out, until they drink and turn into someone else.

“Then we have DVs. We have assaults. We have people walking down the middle of the street with guns. We have all these wild and off-the-wall things,” Wilson said.

Problems related to alcohol may get worse, troopers say. Two hubs, Bethel and Kotzebue, in 2009 liberalized their alcohol laws. Surrounding dry and damp communities are finding it easier to get alcohol these days, troopers say.

Lt. Mike Duxbury, who oversees many of the villages in the detachment, recently dealt with a family struggling with multiple sexual assaults in the span of a few months. The mother had been sexually assaulted, two children were assaulted by a relative, and then one of the same children was sexually abused by a neighbor, who had been drinking.

“This is not unusual and it is a foundation rocker for the youngsters,” Duxbury said.

The mother was caring and concerned but didn’t seem to recognize how much trauma her family had suffered.

As Duxbury helped the family get services in Anchorage, she told him: “I’m trying to hold myself together for this child who needs my support and I’m about to cry at any moment and I can’t figure out why.”

A suicide, a crime of violence or a sexual assault in Anchorage or Fairbanks or Juneau may hurt one family, or spill over and affect a few close friends or neighbors.

In rural villages, the impact is both deep and broad.

“It is in fact the whole village,” Duxbury said. “Crimes of this nature destroy the foundation for folks.”

In smaller villages, just about everyone is  related by blood or marriage or connected in other ways, and everyone knows one another. They know who the perpetrator is, and who sent the person to jail, and why. They think back to when they were a kid, and were a victim of abuse themselves.

Wilson, who has  worked almost 22 years for troopers, said he tries to reinforce to younger troopers the idea that they can’t expect real change just by showing up in a remote village every now and then even if it seems like they are establishing relationships.

“It’s going to take you doing that repeatedly, continuously. Weeks, months, years. Getting into the schools,” Wilson said.

It’s the trooper version of community policing — a strategy that in urban areas assigns officers to a certain neighborhood and encourages them to attend community meetings and talk to residents in non-crisis situations. Troopers have been pushing this for decades but need to do more, Wilson said.

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