Patterns of Reported Crime in Alaska Villages

Patterns of Reported Crime in Alaska Villages

Otwin Marenin

Marenin, Otwin. (1991). "Patterns of Reported Crime in Alaska Villages." Alaska Justice Forum 8(2): 1, 4-6, 8 (Summer 1991). Little is known with any accuracy about patterns of crime in the Native villages of Alaska; yet without decent data, theories of crime are incomplete and policy is blind or misdirected. This article presents data from a study of crime in five unnamed Athabascan villages in central Alaska from 1985 through 1990. In addition to an analysis of the characteristics of the reported crimes, the article includes extracts from Village Public Safety Officer and Alaska State Trooper reports that provide concrete details of individual incidents and a sense of context.

Little is known with any accuracy about patterns of crime in the Native villages of Alaska; yet without decent data, theories of crime are incomplete and policy is blind or misdirected.

The research discussed in this article was conducted during the summer of 1990. This particular effort was incidental to a larger study of the problems of social control and dispute resolution in two of the villages covered by these files.

The data were gathered from incident files maintained in a sub-regional office of the Alaska State Troopers. These included all files opened in that office between January 1985 and May 1990, except for those from 1987, which were missing. Files contained the summary case description forms used by the AST, reports from Village Public Safety Officers, transcriptions of interviews with witnesses, complainants and suspected offenders, and, in some cases, court documents indicating the disposition of the incident. Some files reflected investigations of suicides, fatal accidents or natural deaths; others detailed assistance rendered to the local police department (which had two officers) or preparation for undercover operations.

Data were taken from the descriptive cover sheet for each file. This contains a description of the act; location; date of occurrence and time reported; situation codes for alcohol/drug involvement; indication of weapons use, relationship of victim and offender; number of victims and offenders; and age, sex, and race of offender, victim and witnesses. Not all of this information was provided for each file. Data are reported below in statistical form. I also read the transcripts of victim, offender and witness interviews and the summary description and evaluation written up by the investigating officer, to see how an incident came to be reported: who reported it to whom and how did the Troopers find out? An important question was this: Did villagers use or go through the local police presence, the VPSO, or did they bypass her/him? Not all files were clear on this question and only some summary observations are possible.

The files recorded all incidents reported from five Athabascan villages in Central Alaska, with populations of 280 (Village A), 230 (B), 380 (C), 250 (D) and 140 (E). (These population numbers are approximate; every publication gives a slightly different number. Also, for each village, people move around, work, visit or live in Fairbanks or elsewhere for various periods of time.) Four villages are located on the Yukon and one on a tributary. Subsistence activities structure the local economies; commercial fishing, firefighting in the summer, odd jobs for the local government, transfer payments and a few salaried positions contribute cash income. Practically all villagers are Natives; only a few non-Natives live permanently in the village. The main non-Natives are teachers and government bureaucrats. Teachers spend the school season in the village and leave during the summer; bureaucrats and researchers wander through occasionally. During the summer of 1990, when I spent some time in two of the five villages, more than half the population was away in fishcamps, at commercial fishing sites, or firefighting. Primarily older people and children remained. All villages are second class cities under Alaska law.

Two questions form the focus of analysis. First, how much and what kind of crime occurred in these villages? Second, what are the circumstances of crimes-who commits them; who is victimized; are weapons and alcohol part of the act?

There were a total of 273 files and, counting multiples, 296 incidents described or mentioned. Of this last total, five incidents were juvenile offenses (minor consuming, runaway) and 63 were services (search and rescue, agency assists, accident investigation, natural death, suicide, missing person, transportation, traffic except DWI). The rest, 228, were criminal violations.

It should be emphasized that these figures reflect only reported incidents. There are no published means of checking underreporting rates; however, one can hazard some guesses. Reporting rates are influenced by three major considerations. The first comprises the strength of traditional dispute resolution mechanisms, the salience of family relations, and the legitimacy of the label "crime" applied to the activity. If all three factors subsumed under this first consideration are strong, underreporting to the formal Western legal system is probably quite high and disputes are taken care of within the family or through accepted traditional means-avoidance, talking things through in the village council or among elders. Second, the formal reporting channel for villages is the VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) who represents law enforcement at the local level. (All five villages studied here have a VPSO.) The formal procedure is for the VPSO to report all felonies to the Alaska State Troopers (who have general jurisdiction over all areas of the state) and to handle misdemeanors at the village level, taking note of those in daily logs as they see fit or according to instructions. Some discretion exists in classifying types of crime, and in becoming involved formally as the VPSO in an incident rather than dealing with it informally. The exercise of this discretion depends on the personalities of the VPSOs and relations with the village. Third-as will be seen-most of the crimes reported are committed while under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol abuse seems to be widespread in Native villages. Many incidents which are reported are similar to incidents which are not reported, the difference being whether the participants or observers felt motivated to take the incident public through a formal complaint. Many more complaints could be filed, especially those which arise from or are reinforced by alcohol use, such as assault, criminal trespass or criminal mischief. For all of these reasons, crime is probably severely underreported.

Under Alaska statutory classification of crimes, 7 of the 228 criminal violations reported were unclassified felonies; 6, A felonies; 38, B felonies; 28, C felonies; 101, A misdemeanors; and 8, B misdemeanors. The other 40 incidents could not be classified; most commonly, the degree of the offense was not listed. Subdivided by object categories, 126 (55%) incidents were anti-person crimes; 49 (21%) property; 42 (18%) order; and 11 (5%) traffic offenses. The anti-person category includes the offense of criminal trespass, because typically the trespass occurred at night and awoke the person(s) in the home.

The most common crime was fourth degree assault (50 incidents), followed by other assaults (26), misconduct involving a weapon (23), criminal trespass (21), criminal mischief (14), sexual abuse of a minor (12) and third degree theft (12). Assaults totaled 33 per cent of all reported incidents; assaults and incidents of criminal trespass, criminal mischief and misconduct involving a weapon totaled 59 per cent. Much of the crime reflected domestic violence.

The felony and misdemeanor classifications need to be viewed with caution. Reading even the descriptions in the files showed how discretion is used in labeling the activity or assigning a degree. It was hard to discern patterns: Why was an assault, criminal trespass or criminal mischief labeled either third or fourth degree; why was disorderly conduct which consisted of fighting in the community hall not listed as an assault; why was misconduct involving weapons (which often included shots fired at or near persons) not classified as first degree assault or attempted murder; why did sexual assault on a minor (SAM), which involved a long history of prior molestations, end up as SAM second? The SAM category varied tremendously in the events included, which ranged from intentional penetration, to returning home drunk and falling into bed on top of the child, to sex among teenagers.

The following typical event descriptions for common categories of crime provide a better idea than labels alone of the actual situations reflected by the files:

Criminal trespass, third degree: The accused entered the victim's house at 4:30 while she was sleeping. He had been drinking. He turned on the lights. She woke up and yelled at him and he ran. The victim contacted the VPSO the next day. The accused, when interviewed, stated he was so drunk he could not remember anything about that night. He pleaded no contest in the local magistrate's court and was sentenced to 45 days suspended, two years probation, no contact with the victim and alcohol screening within one month.

Misconduct involving weapon, second degree: The accused, arriving home, found three juveniles feeding his dogs. He had been drinking. He called them names and threatened that he would shoot them. He got his gun and fired one shot at the juveniles, who ran around the house. Four more shots were fired. One witness described the accused: "He was kind of half shot; he wasn't totally drunk though. Not falling down drunk. I could tell he had been drinking though." Another man came by, calmed the accused down and made him lay the gun on the ground. Another witness picked it up as well as other guns from the accused's boat and locked them up. The accused doesn't remember any of this. He went to the witness who had locked up his guns the next day and apologized for his behavior.

Assault, fourth degree: A husband and wife got into an argument at 3 A.M. He had been drinking. He hit her on the head with a rifle butt twice. She hung onto the rifle so he would not hit her again. The daughter ran to the next-door neighbor and said that her father had a gun. The neighbor told her husband to go over and get the guns and the kids out of the house. The husband did. The victim had to go to the health clinic to have the wound sutured. She filed a complaint with the VPSO the next day. The health aide supported her story. The complaint was filed with the magistrate's court, and was still pending at the time of the research.

Criminal mischief, third degree: The offender and victim were living in the home of an elderly relative of the victim. The offender came home drunk and tore up some of the victim's clothes. He was mad because someone had cut up his mattress. The older relative called the VPSO. The offender had bought the clothes for the victim. He had paid some money already to the victim in compensation and he promised to pay the rest later.

The following distribution of incidents by village and year occurred: 45 files were opened in 1985; 46 in 1986; 76 in 1988; 57 in 1989; and 25 in the first five months of 1990. (In 24 files the year in which the incident was reported is not clear.)

Of all the files, 65 were for Village A (with a population of 280); 55 for Village B (230); 49 for Village C (380); 46 for Village D (250); 30 for Village E (250); and 28 for the region. The following rates per thousand for criminal incidents alone emerged: 34/1000 for Village A; 44/1000 for B; 20/1000 for C; 35/1000 for D; and 38/1000 for E. Crosstabulation revealed little relationship between village and types or characteristics of crime.

These aggregate rates are quite high compared to those for Alaska as a whole. However, the rate for Village C is significantly lower. But aggregate information can obscure some factors. It is clear that much of the criminal activity which is reported is committed by a few people in each village. This is the assessment of all Alaska State Troopers interviewed. When the former oversight Trooper for these five villages was asked whether criminal activity in the villages during his assignment was widely distributed, he responded immediately: "Not in [name of village]; there [name of individual] is the one-man crime wave." He described the situation in another village: The "[family name] boys were out of control. They had the town treed." Within the files, the same names appear repeatedly as offenders or victims. However, the exact distribution of criminal activity needs further investigation.

Table 1. Reported Criminal Incidents and Average Annual Crime Rate in Five Alaska Villages

Some characteristics of reported criminal incidents form distinct patterns. Females were the victims in about 65 per cent of all incidents; the exceptions were property offenses and Class A felonies, in which males were more commonly victimized, but for which there were fewer cases. Victims spanned all age categories. Males constituted about 89 per cent of all offenders, with the vast majority between 20 and 40 years old. Only one of the criminal incidents for which the relationship was coded occurred between strangers. The rest occurred between family members, boy and girl friends, or friends (47%), involved others known to the victim (33%), or were coded as unknown (19%).

A weapon (gun or other) was used in only 47 criminal incidents; about half of those were labeled misconduct involving a weapon, that is, guns. Alcohol was involved in 95 per cent of felonies and 72 per cent of misdemeanors. In the object category classification, alcohol was involved in 89 per cent of order offenses, in 90 per cent of anti-person offenses, and 57 per cent of property offenses.

It is more difficult to describe patterns with regard to who reported the offense and to whom, since that information was not found in most files or, if found, normally turned up as an incidental remark in an interview transcript. Information on to whom the offense was reported was missing in 152 files, and on who reported it, in 190 files. The files in which information could be found (for all types of incidents), revealed that approximately 60 per cent of the time the offense was first reported to the VPSO, and, second most frequently, to the subregional or Fairbanks Troopers directly. The victim reported the incident in about 35 per cent of the cases; in the rest the incident was reported primarily by relatives or villagers. The reporting often took circuitous routes. For example, the victim of a gunshot was taken by Medivac to Fairbanks, where hospital personnel called the Fairbanks Troopers. They, in turn, called the subregional Troopers, who contacted the VPSO to check on how the incident had happened. In another case, a teacher observed that a child acted strangely and, after talking to the child, suspected sexual abuse. The principal, after being informed, called Family and Youth Services in the subregional center. They then contacted the Troopers, who requested a Family and Youth Services counselor to interview the child in their presence.

The important findings from this examination of data can be summarized. The level of criminal activity differs among villages and by year, but overall, is high compared to Alaska statistics as a whole, if averaged over the five years and the region. However, care needs to be exercised in pushing these data too far. The villages are small and one person-whether a VPSO who works proactively or an aggressive resident who routinely gets into fights-can color the entire picture.

Anti-person offenses make up a large share of all crimes. This is not surprising, given the situation of villagers. Since everyone knows everyone else it would be impossible to steal or destroy a big piece of property without people knowing immediately who had done so. Thefts which occur are of small items-gasoline, videos, tools; destructive property crimes are also fairly minor-the windshield of a snowmobile is bashed in or fire extinguishers are discharged by juveniles in the school gym.

Females are victimized much more frequently than males. They probably are more frequent victims of assaults and abuse: In this area villages are little different from other groups where women, especially younger ones, occupy lesser positions and become culturally condoned targets of opportunity. Another possible explanation for the greater female victimization may be different levels of reporting. When males assault each other there may be less inclination to report the incident than when a female has been assaulted because fights and quarrels are routine aspects of male life, and women may use the law and the VPSO to protect themselves against assaults or disorder differently than do men. In a number of interviews I was told by female respondents that they were afraid especially at night when someone, usually drunk, would come pounding on their door or window. The VPSO or a male relative was their only recourse then. Most assaults and abuses are, one would guess, not reported; the fact that reporting rates are as high as they are reflects the precarious situation of women who are targets and for whom traditional forms of conflict resolution have become less available. Reporting abuses in small communities where escape is limited can be acts of near desperation (for older women) and of defiance (for younger women).

Alcohol is involved in the vast majority of crimes, but far less so for property than for person or order offenses. Property offenses require some forethought; many of the person and order offenses are "natural" when people have been drinking. The opportunities for those offenses-intimacy and close living over long periods of time-are always present. Alcohol consumption magnifies the irritation of minor frictions while it lessens individual control behavior.

Native villages have public safety needs. It may be true that many incidents which could be reported as crimes are taken care of informally, by avoidance, by talking it out, or by the intercession of elders or local councils. Still, these data do show a need for an organized and systematic response capacity to local crime and disorder, a capacity which is simultaneously responsive to local wishes, the procedural constraints of law and the need for effective protection.

Otwin Marenin is an Associate Professor in Criminal Justice at Washington State University. This research was funded by a grant from the Fund for Research on Dispute Resolution. The Fund is not responsible for any of the interpretations the author has made of the data.