ANCHORAGE, Alaska – In the four hours it took Alaska State Troopers to arrive at the Eskimo village of Nunam Iqua, a man choked and raped his 13-year-old stepdaughter in front of three younger children. He had already beaten his wife with a shotgun and pistol-whipped a friend after an evening drinking home brew.
Across the remote, frozen reaches of Alaska, scores of native villages have no full-fledged police officers at all. And help in an emergency can be a long way off.
"We're just trying to hang in there," said Edward Adams, mayor of Nunam Iqua.
Alaska's villages are often desperately poor, with people subsisting on hunting and fishing. Many communities cannot afford police forces. At the same time, the Alaska State Troopers don't have the manpower to put officers on patrol in every village.
As a result, when serious crimes are committed, many villages must rely on troopers based in towns far away. And it can take days for help to arrive if the weather is bad or troopers have more pressing cases.
During the attack in Nunam Iqua more than two years ago, locals in the village of 200 had to call troopers in Bethel, 155 miles away. But the troopers' aircraft was being serviced. So they had to charter a plane to get to the community on Alaska's western coast.
Since then, tribal leaders in the village have hired a single public safety officer. But she has no law enforcement training and is unarmed.
Nunam Iqua and many other villages are also eligible to tap into the state-funded Village Public Safety Officer program and hire what is known as a VPSO, a brown-uniformed peace officer who receives up to 10 weeks of training from the state troopers and carries pepper spray and a Taser, though no gun.
But the turnover rate among VPSOs has been high as 40 percent, because the job is stressful, with low pay and little backup. And many villages can't attract good applicants because of inadequate housing, the low wages and the astronomical cost of living in Alaska's remote communities. Nunam Iqua, for example, has no housing to offer a VPSO.
The mayor said there have been several burglaries in the village in recent months and a suspicious fire that badly damaged the tribal office. Those cases have not been solved. Adams said having a VPSO would at least be a deterrent to crime.
"We never have anyone patrolling, and that encourages young people to steal," he said. "Enforcing the law would be a lot of help."
VPSOs function as all-around emergency responders in remote communities, answering calls about family disputes, drownings, suicides, fires and search and rescues, and protecting crime scenes until troopers arrive. Most VPSOs are natives themselves.
A state task force has taken a long, hard look at the VPSO program, created in 1979. The panel released its recommendations last week, calling for hefty raises from the current base pay of $16.55 an hour to $21, a boosting of the force from 51 officers to 111 over the next four years, and help in developing housing for them.
Every village with more than 150 residents would get one VPSO. Communities with more than 500 residents would get two.
"These people are the first line of defense," said the task force chairman, state Sen. Donny Olson of Nome. "It's easy to burn out. It's easy to get tired and worn out, and you don't have any backup."
Howard Amos was a VPSO for 10 years in the island village of Mekoryuk. He would get calls at all hours and have to arrest people close to him in the Eskimo community of 200. The pressure was too much for the low pay, said Amos, now mayor of the village.
"My family was becoming concerned for my health," he said. "After some time, you lose all your friends. That sort of thing happens in small communities."