Tribes, State Troopers increase access to justice for Alaska Native survivors of domestic violence

Alaska State Troopers received new training in October aimed at keeping Tribal citizens safer

Late evening on the Kuskokwim River in Nunapitchuk, Alaska. October 12. 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

(Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon) – In remote parts of Alaska, justice and safety are hard for domestic violence survivors to access. Law enforcement is scarce and usually arrives after harm happens. But there is a tool that allows law enforcement officers to stop domestic violence before it starts: a domestic violence protective order.

A domestic violence protective order, or DVPO, is a state- or Tribe-issued protection that requires perpetrators of violence to stay away from victims. A DVPO is not a criminal conviction, but violating one is.

Rick Garcia, a former District Court magistrate judge for Aniak and Hooper Bay, discovered that Alaska state troopers were unable to enforce DVPOs issued by Tribes a few years ago.

“Currently, what happens with Tribal DVPOs is they’re not entered in the same way as state or DVPOs. So officers aren’t able to access that information,” he said. “What that means for Tribal survivors is that they have to carry a valid piece of paper on them at all times to get protection.”

All 229 Tribes in Alaska have the ability to make their own laws and to have their own justice systems. They can all issue Tribal domestic violence protective orders, which state law enforcement should enforce, according to federal law. State-issued orders can be easily added to the State Trooper database, the Alaska Public Safety Information Network.

Tribal DVPOs cannot; a significant barrier to enforcement.

Garcia has been working with the state and federal governments to correct the issue. He and the Department of Public Safety worked to get the entire system changed, so that Tribal orders can be entered into the database. The change to the system will “go live” in January of 2024, he said.

“It’s certainly a better way of making sure that women and children are protected, and those that have protective orders are protected, but also really elevates Tribal protective orders on the same parity as state protective orders, which is needed in Alaska,” he said.

The change also brings the state into compliance with federal law.

Full faith and credit 

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act is a federal legislative package designed to end violence against women. It includes the Full Faith and Credit provision which requires every jurisdiction in the United States to recognize and enforce valid protection orders issued in any jurisdiction in the United States — including Tribes.

Full faith and credit means that Alaska State Troopers must enforce Tribal DVPOs.

The stakes to enforcement are high: The law also recognizes that Alaska Native people are overrepresented as domestic violence victims by 250%. Even compared with other American Indian Tribes, Alaska Native people experience the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the nation.

Garcia now works on legal policy with Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, a Tribal nonprofit dedicated to ending violence against women. When an Alaska Tribe asked him to help one if its citizens get their domestic violence protective order enforced, he asked a number of state troopers about “full faith and credit.” They all gave him different answers.

Some thought they could enforce a Tribal DVPO if the Tribe paid a $60 fee for enforcement; others thought they were not authorized to enforce Tribal DVPOs at all. None of these is true.

“It was frequent enough that we knew it was a problem”

Capt. Andrew Merrill with the Alaska State Troopers has spent the majority of his career working in Alaska communities off the road system, primarily in Western Alaska. He oversees all the troopers in that region, including the Aleutians, Kodiak, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue.

“That’s kind of where my passion has been, is working and serving in those areas remote around Alaska,” he said.

He said he knew Tribal DVPOs were difficult to enforce: If he polled his troopers, he said his guess is that almost all of them have had experiences where they were asked to enforce a Tribal order, but no one had a copy of it. “It was frequent enough that we knew it was a problem,” he said.

But he said he was disturbed when he got the call from Garcia, and learned that so many officers were unaware of how “full faith and credit” works.

He and Garcia formed a working group to fix the issue that included the state’s Departments of Law and Public Safety, Alaska State Troopers, a number of nonprofits and the Alaska Native Justice Center.

Solving the education problem was fairly simple: Merrill said the the Department of Public Safety created mandatory training for state troopers who serve in rural areas. Classes began this October; roughly 100 troopers have taken them.

The question of actual enforcement was trickier. There was no mechanism for Tribal DVPOs to get into the state law enforcement system.

“We want to enforce those orders as allowed by law,” Merrill said. “But we can’t if the person hasn’t committed a crime.” That is, a crime other than violating the order.

But he said officers cannot enforce an order if they have no proof that it exists. Merrill said officers need proof the order exists and that the offender knows about the order. That means that if a Tribal citizen says they are being targeted by someone who is required to leave them alone because of a Tribal DVPO, the State Troopers — often the only law enforcement in large parts of the state — cannot intervene.

Merrill said rural and remote law enforcement were lucky if they got a copy of Tribal DVPOs, but even if they do get them, they can’t enter them into their system. That means regional officers might know about the order, but law enforcement in other parts of the state will not — an issue if the Tribal citizen travels elsewhere.

“The whole purpose behind a protective order is to provide some protection. And more importantly, for the law enforcement side of it, to give us a tool to actually take immediate action,” he said. “The nice thing is, when a protective order has been issued and served, if a person violates those orders, we can arrest them immediately.”

To enter a DVPO, or any type of warrant, into the state database, the Alaska State Troopers need to have an agreement with the issuing body that it guarantees the information is accurate, that it will alert the Troopers of any changes and that it will notify them if the order is revoked. All municipal police departments sign them, he said. But there was no process in place for Tribes.

He said the Troopers also hired contractors to reprogram the Alaska Public Safety Information Network system so that Tribes that sign the agreement can have their court orders entered into the system, making it compliant with the federal law.

Merrill presented the change to the Tanana Chiefs Conference this year. He acknowledges that the state has not always been a good partner or steward with Tribes, so he wanted to stress that participation in the system was optional. He said the response was really positive.

“A lot of people were excited about it,” she said. “Afterwards they came up to me. They were excited about the fact that their Tribal court order can be easily seen and enforced anywhere in the state of Alaska.”

He said the problem-solving process was so successful on this issue that he hopes to use the same approach again to solve other problems.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

A full list of Alaska shelters and victim’s services providers can be found here.