How he did it: A reporter reveals more than 70 Alaskan communities have no local police

 
Annie Reed, 49, is often the only cop on duty in the Northwest Alaska village of Kiana. (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News)
By

March 6, 2020

Editor’s note: Annually, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy awards the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Six reporting teams have been chosen as finalists for the 2020 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, as we did last year, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but was not involved in the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner. Due to precautions around coronavirus, the Goldsmith Awards ceremony, originally scheduled for March 12, has been canceled. The winner will be announced soon.

In Alaska, the state with the highest rate of sexual violence in America, Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins discovered more than 70 far-flung villages and towns without public safety officers, leaving residents waiting hours — or days — for first responders.

“How do you talk about problems with investigations into sex crimes if you don’t talk about the fact that there are dozens of places where there is no one to take the rape call?” Hopkins says.

Alaska had not enforced village police hiring standards at the time of the Daily News investigation, reported throughout 2019 in partnership with ProPublica. Police in Anchorage make over $30 an hour, plus retirement and other benefits. In rural villages, police sometimes make half of what Anchorage police earn, while still facing life-or-death situations. Some villages hired convicted criminals, including sex offenders, as police.

“It was jaw dropping, the criminal records of these guys working on the public dime as police officers, with the authority to take someone and put them in jail overnight,” Hopkins recalls.

At the time the investigation began the state did not officially track the number of police working in remote villages, the Daily News reported. After Hopkins’ reporting, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a national emergency, leading to millions in federal dollars to improve law enforcement in Alaska. Police departments in Iowa have gathered cash and equipment to help. Governor Mike Dunleavy has proposed a bill that would ban criminals from becoming police in rural villages.

A disturbing succession of incidents

Anchorage accounts for about 40% of Alaska’s population. Fairbanks and Juneau make up almost another 10% combined. The rest of Alaskans live in towns and villages, some with just a few hundred people and accessible only by plane or snowmobile.

“It’s geographically massive and then there are small pockets of populations,” says Hopkins, who was born and mostly raised in Alaska. “It makes everything, when it comes to providing basic government services, super complicated because everything is so far away.”

Reporting tip: Personal experience can inspire and improve coverage. “When I was a kid, for several years I lived in the kinds of villages we’re writing about,” Hopkins says. “So for me that’s always been important. As I got older I realized that not everybody knows what life is like in villages, including most Alaskans. Most Alaskans live in Anchorage — they would have no reason to set foot in a village.”

Hopkins has spent about 12 years at the Daily News, with four years covering breaking news. A handful of times over the years he came across a police officer who had been arrested at some point, but was still on the job. That stayed with Hopkins.

“How could this person be a police officer? They have a record of felony conviction,” he recalls thinking about these scattered cases.

Then came a series of incidents in 2018 in Nome, a rural hub community in the mid-northwest part of the state, best known to the rest of the country as the finish line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

In May, the Nome Police Department began a case audit after receiving complaints from citizens about the department’s “handling of certain cases.” In August the city rehired a safety patrol officer, who had punched a homeless woman, as a dispatcher. Later that month the city approved the hire of a new police chief.

In September a different Nome emergency dispatcher told Hopkins that a man had raped her — and that her police colleagues ignored the case for over a year. The new police chief brought on investigators to take a look at prior sexual assault cases, but staff turnover and heavy workloads stalled the review. Also in September 2018, a man was charged with raping and killing a 10-year old girl in Kotzebue, a town some 180 miles northeast, as the crow flies, of Nome.

In October, another woman came forward and said she had been raped in Nome. The Daily News put a call to readers to learn their stories of sexual violence and abuse. Around the same time in Washington, D.C., Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings were focusing on sexual assault allegations against the future Supreme Court justice. The #MeToo movement was in full swing.

“There was like this real reckoning of bad behavior going unchallenged,” Hopkins says.

The newspaper heard from about 200 people in both villages and cities. They offered raw details of their assaults — not meant for publication, but for the Daily News to understand the scope of the problem.

“The level of trauma was off the charts,” Hopkins says.

Reporting tip: Don’t assume — ask. “Sexual assault and abuse of children is a huge problem in Alaska,” Hopkins says. “We always struggle with how to cover it. Part of it is a wrong assumption on our part that people were reluctant to talk about it.”

Themes emerged in the responses.

One theme was police telling alleged victims that the only way the department would charge an alleged assailant was if he admitted to assault while the victim wore a wire.

Another was that sometimes alleged victims told their family members about an assault, but were encouraged not to go to police because of potential backlash in the community, or because the accused was a breadwinner.

By the end of 2018, Hopkins and his Daily News editors had committed to pursuing the largely untold story of sexual abuse in rural Alaska. During the first three months of 2019, Hopkins gathered data and did community reporting, going to villages. By mid-May, the Daily News began publishing Hopkins’ ongoing series Lawless: Sexual Violence in Alaska, with reporting support from ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

Reporting tip: When talking with trauma survivors, help them understand your role as a journalist. Hopkins was conscious that some of the sexual assault survivors he interviewed had never before spoken to a reporter. He explained the process of putting a story together, of why certain details matter. He made clear to sources that he didn’t want to tell their stories if they weren’t ready. He did a lot of reading written passages to sources, to make sure he had correctly characterized their experiences.

A painstaking process pays off

The state didn’t track officers in remote villages — there was no master list. So Hopkins set out to create one. Three entities in a village might hire law enforcement: the village itself, a tribe or a tribal corporation.

“To say a community had no police, you had to have spoken to all three,” Hopkins says.

The state did have contact information for those village entities in charge of police hiring. Hopkins eliminated abandoned ghost towns by focusing on communities with a local government, a post office or postal unit, and a public school.

A first round of emails netted a third of the final tally of communities with or without public safety officers. For the rest, Hopkins emailed again, or reached out through Facebook or by phone. If hiring officials still weren’t responding, someone else in a position of authority — a council member, or a school principal — was often able to confirm if the village had law enforcement. From this painstaking reporting over several months in early 2019, Hopkins tallied the more than 70 communities without police protection.

“What we reported I think was a conservative estimate,” he says. “I think the true number of communities with no local law enforcement at some point in 2019 is probably higher.”

Reporting tip: Hit a dead end? Try snail mail. With the list whittled down there were still a few villages that hadn’t responded. That’s when Hopkins sent letters. “That was weirdly super productive,” he says. “We heard from a dozen places based on snail mail. There’s something about getting mail that signaled we were serious. I had one person tell me, ‘OK, I got the letter. I guess you really want this information.’”

‘That’s just the way it is … but it shouldn’t be’

Nearly 29% of American Indian/Alaska Native women nationwide have experienced rape in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost a quarter of all women in Alaska have been raped and some 45% of Alaskan women have experienced sexual violence.

“When it’s like that for generations you start to think, ‘That’s just the way it is,’” Hopkins says. “That’s the whole first part of the project — it’s like this, but it shouldn’t be.”

Reporting tip: There are breaking stories and oozing stories, Hopkins says. Oozing stories develop slowly over time. They become like the “wallpaper of an institution,” ever-present but in the background, he says. Follow breaking news, but keep your eyes peeled for oozing stories. “This felt like an oozing story,” he says. “It’s OK to point the spotlight on this thing that is broken, and just because it’s always been like that is not an excuse. An instructive thing from this past year has been looking to these stories that are right in front of my face.”

Telling the story without stigmatizing communities — and other challenges

In one community, Stebbins, all seven officers had a domestic violence conviction as of July 1, 2019, according to Hopkins’ reporting. That’s an important story. But Hopkins didn’t want readers to come away thinking the story of the convicted officers was the sum of Stebbins.

“It gave me heartburn about how to do it responsibly,” Hopkins says.

He covered the story deeply from multiple angles, including the voices of the officers. Apart from the challenge of fairly reporting on sensitive events, the governor’s office brought another set of obstacles.

Governor Dunleavy took office in December 2018, as reporting for the “Lawless” series was getting off the ground. The same day in June 2019 that Barr announced federal funding to improve policing in rural Alaska, the governor said he had vetoed millions of dollars set aside to hire village public safety officers.

Hopkins couldn’t get a phone call with the new governor. The previous governor had been much easier to get on the line, Hopkins says. He had to question Dunleavy after public events, while walking to his car. The resistance from the state made Hopkins especially protective of the truth he discovered.

“I felt like I wanted this extra level of fact checking in order to inoculate the series,” Hopkins says. “So we did this really over-the-top fact checking process, where every fact and every sentence I put into a spreadsheet and listed the source of that fact and a link, if possible.”

‘Lawless’ isn’t finished

Hopkins’ reporting is ongoing, with a focus now on sexual assault survivors in Alaska. Sexual assault of men and boys is a legitimate problem there, but the majority of survivors are women, Hopkins says. When reaching out to survivors he would let them know about his past reporting, but was understanding if they were uncomfortable sharing their stories with a man.

“We would hear from survivors that it was upsetting to be in a room with a man,” Hopkins says. “I have awesome colleagues who are women so I’d say, ‘If you’d prefer to talk with them that’s fine.’ I don’t think I’m the exact right person to do these stories, but it’s like — are we ever going to do them? So just do them.”

Survivors’ stories sometimes stay with Hopkins, after the reporting day is done.

“You should expect it to affect you,” he says. “It’s not strange that it does.”

Reporting tip: Take care of yourself. Reporting on sexual assault can take a toll. “I told my boss at the beginning of this year I’m going to do therapy,” Hopkins says. “I’m not going to mess around. This stuff is really upsetting, and I’m not sure how to leave it at work. The level of trauma, it’s a level of trauma that’s hard to take that you wade into. It’s hard to brush off and go home and not think about it.”

Here’s more from JR on how the media covered three high-profile sexual assault cases, tips for interviewing trauma survivors, the mental health toll reporting can take, the multi-trillion-dollar cost of sexual violence in America and why survivors sometimes don’t come forward for years.

Clarification: This story has been updated to explain more clearly that, at the time of the Daily News investigation, the state did not officially track the number of police officers working in remote villages.

 

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