‘This is really a moral imperative’: Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveils new public safety plan

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the beginnings of a new public safety plan.
Published: Dec. 14, 2021 at 4:31 PM AKST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2021 at 6:02 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled the People First Initiative on Tuesday, a plan to improve public safety across the state.

“We know that this isn’t going to be easy,” he said.

There are five areas the initiative is focusing on: Domestic violence and sexual assault, human and sex trafficking, homelessness, foster care and missing and murdered Indigenous persons.

Dunleavy said there would be administrative orders issued soon to set up offices that deal with some of those focus areas. The cost of the public safety initiative would be “millions of dollars,” he added, but it could save money in the long run if these crises are addressed. And, there are other reasons to act.

“This is really a moral imperative,” Dunleavy said.

More details about funding sources will be announced on Wednesday when the governor unveils his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

Commissioner Jim Cockrell of the Alaska Department of Public Safety said it’s not possible to put an Alaska State Trooper in every village, but that a recent $20,000 signing bonus for troopers has been “immensely popular” in boosting numbers.

Cockrell also wants to hire more Village Public Safety Officers after increasing their pay. There are currently 55 working across the state and he wants to increase that to around 100.

“That will take a couple of years,” Cockrell said.

Alaska is one of two states where troopers and firefighters don’t have a defined retirement benefits scheme. Many in law enforcement have said that has worsened the agency’s retention issues. Cockrell, a 30-year veteran of the troopers, supports implementing one.

“There has to be a reward at the end of a career,” he said.

A retirement scheme was not announced as part of the governor’s initiative, but the Alaska House of Representatives passed a bill earlier in the year to establish one.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, was in meetings during the governor’s announcement and missed it. He said that troopers told the Legislature earlier in the year that they were not meeting recruiting targets.

Dunleavy bristled against those failures that were highlighted by the Anchorage Daily News on Monday. The governor said he would need to speak with Cockrell about his commissioner’s support for residents of second-class boroughs paying more for law enforcement in their communities.

Claman said issues with retention don’t have a single explanation, but a retirement scheme would be critical along with other priorities, like providing housing for troopers in rural Alaska.

“It’s encouraging that he finally realizes he has a problem,” Claman said about the governor’s initiative. “It’s discouraging that it’s taken him three years to figure that out.”

The governor announced one administrative order would establish a state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Council to address the national and Alaska crisis. Murder is the third highest cause of death for Indigenous women.

“They’re our daughters, they’re our mothers and our grandmothers,” said Kendra Kloster, executive director of Native Peoples Action.

Chris Kolerak from the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness said two statewide coordinators studying the issue of homelessness would be “huge.”

“Doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing,” he added about studying the data before enacting policies.

Some of the governor’s proposals would involve increasing penalties for certain offenses related to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking.

Michelle Overstreet from My House said she felt hopeful for the first time after working with the governor. For most people, human trafficking can be “a little bit invisible.”

“If you work with homeless youths, you see it every day,” she said.

But, there is some skepticism about the governor’s initiative, particularly in its timing. Alaska is 11 months out from an election that Dunleavy is campaigning in for another term.

Former Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, who is running against the governor and is a long-term advocate of improving foster care, thinks the initiative is an election pitch.

“But last year, he vetoed money that was aimed to keep families together and keep kids out of foster care,” he said, describing the current system as having been torn to shreds.

Dunleavy addressed claims that this is a campaign pitch, saying “this is not what this is about.” He said the policies, task forces and administrative orders have been in the works for a long time and there is much work to be done with various stakeholders and the Legislature.

But many Alaskans have heard similar proposals before.

The governor’s initiative is the latest in a long list of plans to address high rates of crime across Alaska. Dunleavy acknowledged that many initiatives have been launched in the past. All have fallen short in reducing chronically high rates of violence and sexual assault.

He said much has been learned. There are new technologies to track DNA and manage data. It won’t be quick to make changes, but Alaskans will judge the outcomes of this pledge to address public safety.

“We are all going to be held accountable, and we should be, for what we say and what we do,” Dunleavy said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct a direct quote from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

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