Small Towns In Alaska Are Staffing Their Police Departments With Convicted Criminals
from the replacing-bad-cops-with-worse-cops dept
Hiring cops is hard work. That’s probably why we’re not exactly blessed with the best of the best. Over the past few years, police officer morale has been in a nosedive. As the public’s awareness of police misconduct has increased (along with third-party footage of said misconduct), cops have discovered the job is no longer quite as fun as it used to be. Lots of power and zero accountability is a hell of a drug, but even that wears off eventually.
But cop shops still need cops, so hiring continues. Law enforcement agencies endlessly recycle fired officers, giving them unearned shots at redemption. Other agencies have just given up, hiring whoever walks through the door expressing interest in the position.
When the openings exceed the hiring pool, you get the mess being inflicted on the residents of Stebbins, Alaska. This horrifying report by Kyle Hopkins for ProPublica demonstrates just how low the bar can be set for new hires if your agency is desperate enough.
In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind.
The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook.
Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter.
Convicts are the new cops in Stebbins. But it’s not just a Stebbins problem. All across Alaska, law enforcement agencies are understaffed. A third of Alaskan towns have no local cops at all. No cops might be the better choice. The ProPublica investigation found that at least 14 Alaskan cities employ officers with criminal records — something that violates Department of Public Safety regulations. (It also violates common sense, but only the former can levy fines and enforce compliance.)
The most common convictions are for domestic violence. This is a problem that’s inherent to law enforcement. Studies performed in the 1990s found that 40% of police officer families experienced domestic violence as compared to 10% of the rest of the population. There’s very little reason to believe this has improved over the past 20 years. Law enforcement agencies simply do not punish officers who engage in domestic violence.
In many departments, an officer will automatically be fired for a positive marijuana test, but can stay on the job after abusing or battering a spouse…
[W]hile most officials say they treat domestic abuse by officers as they would any other form of misconduct, interviews and disciplinary records indicate that, in fact, punishment is often light and job loss uncommon.
Given this permissive environment, the situation may have gotten worse since these studies were performed. The most pessimistic take on ProPublica’s investigation is that the only difference between the Stebbins police force and other law enforcement agencies is the number of domestic violence convictions.
Odds are, it’s not going to get any better. The state’s Department of Public Safety has basically given up on policing the state’s police officers. It’s also ceding its position, since zero oversight definitely won’t improve the public’s safety. This means vulnerable Alaskan communities will be all the more vulnerable for the foreseeable future.
In Mountain Village, population 864, one recent VPO [Village Police Officer] awaits trial on charges of stealing from a murder scene. Court records show five other recent VPOs in the same Yukon River community are awaiting hearings or have admitted to criminal charges including four counts of disorderly conduct, three counts of assault, two cases of neglect, two cases of drunken driving, two charges of harassment and three cases of domestic violence.
Along the Norton Sound coast, the city of Shaktoolik in May hired a VPO who has pleaded guilty to five assault charges within the past 10 years. “He was our only applicant so we had no other choice,” a city employee said.
Among those hired as TPOs in the fishing villages of Kasigluk and Tuntutuliak, located among the vast web of river-fed lakes in western Alaska, are registered sex offenders who admitted to abuse of a minor or attempted sexual abuse of a minor.
There’s nothing in these jobs that attracts good people, much less great people. It mainly attracts people who can’t find work elsewhere because of their criminal records. But police departments are willing to overlook this just to keep the positions filled. This isn’t an acceptable compromise. The entity standing between the Alaskan public and the police has failed to hold the line and the state’s taxpayers will continue to pay for a problem the state’s not willing to fix.