The responses made by Alaska village residents to a survey on public safety and law enforcement reveal, either directly or implicitly, a widespread sense that issues of public safety, including policing, are best approached with as much local participation as possible. Overall, village residents view the responsibility for control of crime and certain other community safety concerns as shared between the Alaska State Troopers and local entities, such as Village Police Officers, Village Public Safety Officers, and village, IRA and traditional councils. Questions concerning the quality of life in the villages reveal that a general satisfaction with community life coexists with an articulated understanding of social problems.
The survey, which was conducted on-site, examined local attitudes toward public safety in villages throughout the state. One hundred and seventy-five residents from 28 villages were interviewed. Table 1 presents the villages surveyed by regional corporation. (A previous Forum article, "Village Alaska: Community Characteristics and Public Safety," (Winter 1996), discussed the demographics and governing structures of the communities surveyed and presented information on the design of the survey.)
Several of the village survey questions concerned quality of life perceptions: In this community, do you generally feel safe from harm? Overall, do you like living here or would you prefer to live somewhere else? Do you think that this community is a good place to raise children? The responses to these questions and others reveal widespread satisfaction with the interviewees' communities as places to live. Over 90 per cent of those interviewed felt safe from harm in their individual communities. In addition, over half felt that their communities were at least as safe as when they were children and that local crime had decreased or stayed the same over the last five years. A strong majority - 85 per cent - felt their communities were good places to raise children. Comments explaining this satisfaction varied but often reflected traditional ties to family and place:
I love living here. Everything is wonderful - the people, subsistence, the area, most of my family is here.
It's good for the children because everyone knows everyone and if someone sees a kid that might be getting hurt, they help.
Yes, good for kids for hunting and Native lifestyle: elders teach kids how to cut fish and the schools teach hunting. It's not good because of no sewer and water and sickness - but they're getting it now.
Because I live and grow up here. Good - subsistence for us all year round.
Freedom to go out in woods - choices of how to lead life.
This is a strange question. It's where I come from - it's beautiful.
Other questions sought information about specific community problems: Considering all of the things that affect people in rural Alaska, what do you feel is the most serious problem facing people living in your community? How much of the crime in this community do you feel is caused by alcohol? By illegal drugs? The responses to these questions reveal that the social problems associated with alcohol and illegal drugs are viewed as serious by residents from all the villages surveyed. Over 75 per cent of those interviewed identified alcohol, illegal drugs, or both, as the most serious community problem. Moreover, the explanatory comments provided by the interviewees indicate that when residents do not feel safe in their villages, their concerns are often associated with excessive consumption of alcohol and the presence of firearms:
When the town is sober - it's very safe. When it's drunk - it's not safe. People get drunk or high with firearms and no one is willing or capable of intervening.
. . . some people get violent when they get drunk. . . .
Sometimes - I don't feel safe because of firearms and booze.
Over half of the respondents - 57 per cent - felt that almost all crime in their community was caused by alcohol.
However, although residents in all regions cited alcohol as a serious community problem, they gave differing responses when questioned about other possible problems. Communities in relatively close proximity often exhibited very different concerns. Table 2 presents data on the specific problems residents were asked to evaluate.
When questioned about responsibility for public safety and community problems, interviewees expressed, in several ways, that such problems are best handled with as much local involvement as possible.
Tables 3, 4, and 5 present some of the questions and responses indicative of this attitude. For example, almost 37 per cent of the respondents indicated village police or public safety officers should play a lead role in controlling crime, while less than 17 per cent believed the lead should be the responsibility of the Alaska State Troopers (Table 3).
To help with the most commonly cited community problems - alcohol and drug abuse - respondents in general believed local institutions - the family, elders, schools, the village council - would be most effective (Table 4).
The emphasis on local responsibility did not indicate a disregard for state structure - either laws or agencies. The repeatedly expressed sense that community problems are best comprehended and addressed from local perspectives coexists with recognition and respect for the role of the Alaska State Troopers, particularly in dealing with serious crime. Respondents were asked specifically: What do you expect the Alaska State Troopers to do for your community? The following comments are typical of the responses:
Provide technical and logistical support. Work with tribal government to interpret laws and what to do.
Solve major crime problems. Be good if they are working with us but have to know our jurisdiction and know their jurisdiction.
Come around more, not just when something happens.
Participate. Come by once monthly to show the kids they aren't all bad.
In comments made about the role of the Alaska State Troopers several major themes can be perceived: villagers see a need for better communication between the village and the troopers; residents would prefer troopers to be present in the villages more often; they would like troopers to develop greater understanding of local customs and characteristics; and they would like troopers and local authorities to work together more closely. Respondents indicated particular appreciation for those troopers who had made efforts to become acquainted with a village by making other than routine visits and by attending community functions.
Although survey questions focused primarily on public safety issues - and hence, policing efforts - many respondents also expressed concerns about inadequate communications between other state institutions, such as the courts and corrections, and village authorities. One interviewee expressed a wish that state authorities would "send representatives out to rural areas to see what is happening before they decide their fate for them."
The sense of a shared responsibility is also illustrated by interviewees' responses when questioned on how those who commit crimes in the village should be handled. The following comments are typical:
Depends on the crime. 1. Misdemeanors - arrests and community work service. 2. Felony - to Alaska State Troopers.
They first should be handled by village and if the village can't handle it, refer it to the state.
If the crimes aren't serious - pay and do community work. For serious crimes, call the troopers.
Arrest - stealing with gun; murder, etc. Community work - break-ins; vandalism; stealing without guns. Misdemeanors should be handled locally. Also youth problems like drinking. We should be allowed to establish tribal courts.
Start with the community; serious crimes and people who do things over and over should have to go to Alaska State Troopers.
Respondents consistently suggested work service and restitution as preferred approaches in dealing with offenders, particularly those committing less serious offenses, with incarceration viewed as an ultimate punishment.
As described in the previous Forum article also based on this study, "Village Alaska: Community Characteristics and Public Safety," many of the villages surveyed have established individualized local mechanisms, sometimes extralegal, for handling some problems of social control. The use of such practices follows consistently from the expressed preferences discerned by this survey for community leadership with regard to social problems.
The village survey was part of a larger project conducted for the Department of Public Safety under a grant from the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The report on which this article is based, Public Safety and Policing in Alaska Native Villages, is available from the Justice Center. The report includes quantitative summaries of responses to the survey as well as a transcript of individual comments.