I grew up in a time when all parents felt very safe in telling their children to always look for a policeman if they were scared or lost. A policeman, we were told, would always be our friend.
This was never necessarily true in Bush Alaska. The police that were there – whether state troopers or city police – were usually outsiders brought in to enforce state and federal laws that may or may not have made a lot of sense to the local population within their cultural parameters.
A great example of this was an incident that occurred many years ago in Barrow called Sadie’s Duck Rebellion. Sadie Neakok was the magistrate in Barrow at the time. The federal government passed a law that said you could not take any migratory birds during certain times of the year. The problem was that the only time these birds were in the Barrow area was when the law said no one could hunt them.
Hunters with families to feed were torn between following a law passed thousands of miles away by people with no understanding of them and their need to feed their families through a long, cold dark winter. Not surprisingly, they chose to feed their families.
When the feds showed up to enforce the law, just about every man, woman and child in Barrow showed up at Sadie’s house with a duck in their hand. The feds made no arrests, the law was eventually modified, and duck soup is still some of the best eating in Barrow.
Unfortunately, the relationship between law enforcement officers and the people of the Bush towns they serve has almost always had this disconnect. Not being part of the culture in the town where you are enforcing the law makes enforcement that much harder.
The ideal answer would be to have local people take the law enforcement jobs but that’s not as easy as it sounds. If they were born and raised in that community, they are part of the extended family that is at its core. Pretty much anyone they have to arrest is in some way related. How do you go have a cup of coffee with your uncle when your actions on the job have put his son in jail for ten years?
So the rough time the state troopers have recently had with a few of their employees is all the sadder because of the effect it will have on every trooper and cop in the Bush trying to establish a sense of trust with the people living there.
In particular, the trooper charged with raping women in the community he was supposed to be serving is a horrible blow to that trust. Recent studies show that Alaska continues to lead this nation in just the type of statistics for which we should hope to be in dead last place. Women are beaten, raped and murdered here with astounding, mind numbing repetitiveness.
Women, children, the elderly, the handicapped – these are among our most vulnerable populations. These are the people who most need to be able to trust that when they dial 911 or scream for help, the person who responds is someone willing to protect their lives even at risk of his/her own – not someone who will take advantage of their vulnerability.
We give police and troopers guns and the right to use them to protect us. In return, we expect them to treat this power with respect and restraint so that the unwritten social contract that holds us all together does not break down. We want to trust them, not fear them.
What these few bad examples have done is cause many people, especially in Bush Alaska, to once again wonder who they can trust. And that’s sad because I’ve known a lot of troopers and cops during my 28 years in the Bush and most of them were fine, honorable men and women doing a job they felt was important and very aware of the trust people put in them to do that job well. They don’t deserve to be smeared because of the actions of a few.
I hope the people in the Bush give their troopers and cops the benefit of the doubt because the reality is that 99.9% of them deserve it.