Alaska’s Law Enforcement Crisis

Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

In 2005, the only public safety officer in Russian Mission, a village of 340 people in Alaska, committed suicide. Russian Mission hasn’t had a “permanent, certified police officer” since Simeon Askoak died. As Kyle Hopkins reports at Anchorage Daily News in a joint report effort with ProPublica, residents have been left to fend for themselves in a region with the highest accidental death and homicide rate in Alaska.

He was the only law enforcement officer in Russian Mission, a village of 340 people where he was born and raised. He’d worked as a village public safety officer for the previous 13 years, and while the state of Alaska covered his salary, he lacked equipment, resources and respect.

“It’s degrading me,” Askoak said of the constant search for money to pay for the basic necessities of his job. He described how his city government couldn’t afford utilities for the police station, so he dug into his own pocket to buy heating oil to warm the jailhouse. When his family of seven could no longer afford the bills, the pipes at the jail froze. Soon the water and sewer would be shut off too, he warned.

“We are the first responders,” Askoak said, describing the unique role VPSOs play in the state. They bust drunken drivers, bootleggers and drug dealers. They listen to children tell of being molested, stand between abusers and domestic violence victims, and pull bodies from the rivers. Always unarmed and usually without backup.

Having told his story, Askoak left the meeting and flew home in a rattling bush plane above a tangle of streams and spongy tundra. Two days later, he followed a trail to a lagoon 100 yards from his front door and shot himself in the chest.

He was 50 years old. A boy found his body shrouded in newly fallen snow.

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