Earlier this month, the village of Marshall pushed Governor Walker to issue an emergency declaration in their community due to the region's lack of public safety. For most of the past two decades, Marshall has been without police. Now residents are working out ways to defend their community on their own.
"Living in a village without public safety is a feeling of uneasiness," said Marshall Tribal Administrator Nick Andrews Jr. "You never know what’s going to happen."
Marshall is a tight-knit community of about 500 people, but Andrews says that it's in dire need of law enforcement. He says that opioids are becoming a problem, crimes related to alcohol intoxication have increased since Bethel’s liquor store opened, and there has also been a rise in gun crimes. Andrews can remember five times in the past year when shooters have put Marshall on lockdown.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re intoxicated, enraged," said Andrews. "We have houses being hit with bullets, people dodging bullets."
Marshall residents have started organizing the lockdowns themselves over VHF radios, and five young men in town have recently taken it upon themselves to help their neighbors. "They have been making citizen's arrests," said Andrews. "They have been protecting victims. We don’t call them vigilantes." The men don’t have any police training, but they did manage to talk down Marshall’s last shooter back in October.
Marshall’s tribal council unanimously passed a resolution earlier this month urging Governor Walker to issue an emergency declaration for their region. They hope that the resolution will generate enough funding to pay for law enforcement in the village. It was Andrews’ idea. "We’re caught in the perfect storm of funding, latent tribal justice programs, and a regional non-profit with its own issues," he said.
There are different kinds of law enforcement that operate in the villages, each financed by a different governing body. All of them are underfunded. Marshall’s nearest Trooper post is a few communities away in St. Mary’s. According to Spokesperson Megan Peters, the Troopers in this area are stretched thin, which can delay their responses to service calls, and the weather can delay them for days.
"There should be a Trooper in every community," said Alaska Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan. But he said that the state just doesn't have the money to do that. It's struggling to find enough applicants for existing Trooper positions as it is.
Marshall could also apply for a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO), which the village could get through their regional non-profit, the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP). But according to Alvin Jimmie, who runs that program, the state only awarded funding for 10 VPSO positions in a region with 56 villages this year.
Marshall doesn’t have any Tribal Police Officers; its tribes are just beginning to set up a justice system now. As a municipality, Marshall could employ a Village Police Officer, but it would need state money to fund that position, and state money is drying up.
Over the past two decades, Tribal Administrator Nick Andrews Jr. says that Marshall has managed to get a Village Police Officer or a VPSO two or three times; they’ve always left within a year. In a small town with a high crime rate, AVCP’s Alvin Jimmie says that the job can burn officers out.
"You'll be dealing with your best friends, your closest relatives," he said. "Don't expect a lot of friends."
Becoming a VPSO can be the beginning of an ambitious career path, said Jimmie, and he encouraged prospective applicants to get in touch with him. AVCP's Martha Whitman Kassock also encouraged Marshall to file the initial paperwork needed to obtain a VPSO for their community, which Andrews says that he's in the process of doing.
Residents are on edge in Marshall, and Andrews knows it all too well. His daughter was assaulted by a man named Leon Edwards last January. Andrews ran to Edwards’ house and fought him himself. "If anything was to happen to me, nobody would’ve known anything at that hour," he said.
The Troopers were called in to investigate, and Edwards was charged with six counts of assault. But a week before our interview, Andrews ran into Leon Edwards in the village. "I was on alert," said Andrew. "I have to be friendly, you know. 'Hi, hello.'"
Spokesperson Megan Peters said that the Troopers have been to Marshall several times, but they haven’t been able to take Edwards into custody. So for now, the community copes as best it can.