ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Advocacy groups are working with tribal and state leaders to develop legislation they say should help bring an end to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) crisis in Alaska.
Kendra Kloster stands outside of a vigil honoring Alaska's MMIWG at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. She's the executive director of Native Peoples Action, an organization campaigning for Indigenous peoples' rights.
“We want to look at this as a bipartisan issue; it’s a public safety issue,” Kloster said to the sound of ceremonial drums beating in the background. "We are looking at how we can address missing and murdered Indigenous women, but also looking at how we can make sure that everyone has a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) in their home area.”
Kloster says the two issues are not mutually exclusive. Of the 71 cities surveyed in a nationwide study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (completed in 2017), Anchorage had the third highest number of MMIW cases (31) -- Seattle had the most (45). An investigative series by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found one in three communities has no police presence at all, and statewide recruitment and retention of VPSOs is declining.
Concerned at this apparent lack of law enforcement in Alaskan communities, in Oct. 2019 Kloster wrote letters to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, urging him to include in his FY21 budget funding to address MMIWG and disparities in the VPSO program.
"There was no funding that was actually put in the budget," Kloster said. "So we are continuing to advocate to both the governor and the legislators so they can fix that."
While Dunleavy has not increased funding for the VPSO program, he is working to bolster training requirements and pre-conditions for incoming VPSOs. At the governor's request the House Rules Committee wrote HB 224, introduced Jan. 27, which if passed would require incoming VPSOs complete at least 12 hours of instruction regarding domestic violence and at least 12 hours of instruction regarding domestic assault.
A Joint House/Senate Working group was convened in May 2019 to look at ways of improving the VPSO system. The VPSO Working Group held nine different meetings across Alaska from Aug. 2019 to Jan. 2020. The group submitted its recommendations on Jan. 24.
The consensus of the working group was the VPSO program "is in need of change to better serve Alaskans." The group noted the program is not "broken", but it is "distressed". After meeting with the Department of Public Safety it was determined the fastest and most effective way to improve the program is through statutory changes.
Spokesperson for the governor Jeff Turner provided a statement Saturday, saying in part, "The VPSOs are also a vital part of Alaska’s public safety program. The Governor is reviewing the report and its recommendations."
While Kloster hails this process as a positive step forward, she wants lawmakers to be clear on the fact that Indigenous voices must be heard throughout the drafting process.
“I see this as step one," Kloster said. "And I think we are going to have many different iterations of this legislation going forward to make sure that we are addressing public safety."
"We’ve been hearing about our missing sisters and our murdered sisters… But it’s not new. And it’s unfortunate. And it needs to stop," Kloster continued. "And we need our partners, and our legislators and our governor, to come out really strong, and be with us, and say this is an indigenous-led effort ... What can we do to help you? What can we do to make this stop? Because enough is enough. I’m tired of losing our indigenous people.”
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