Moved by his recent visit to remote villages in Alaska, Attorney General William P. Barr on Friday declared a law enforcement emergency to make millions of dollars available to the state to hire and train more police officers.
Early in his second go-round as the country’s top law enforcement official, Barr has been at the center of some of Washington’s most politically charged episodes. He released special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, then announced he would have a U.S. attorney investigate the origins of that probe. Two congressional panels voted to hold him in contempt for failing to comply with subpoenas. His Justice Department decided it would back full invalidation of the Affordable Care Act.
But to lesser fanfare, Barr has traveled the world and the country, and he has taken a keen interest in America’s northernmost state.
The emergency declaration Friday makes available to Alaska $6 million, which will go toward hiring, training and equipping police officers for villages and mobile detention facilities. The Justice Department announced it would award another $4.5 million through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to fund 20 officer positions.
Law enforcement emergency declarations, which allow the Justice Department to make funds available to states to address “uncommon” situations that threaten to “become of serious or epidemic proportions,” are infrequent. Department officials said this was the first they were aware of one being declared in Alaska.
In recent years, they have used the maneuver to move funds to address gang violence in Selma, Ala.; to help North Carolina in the wake of a hurricane; and to pay for local law enforcement expenses after mass shootings in Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla.; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Santa Fe, Tex.
Barr visited Alaska in late May, making good on a promise he made to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) during his confirmation process. He flew in a military plane and traveled by boat to reach one of the state’s remote villages. The trip seemed to have a profound effect.
In announcing the emergency declaration, the Justice Department noted that Alaska had the highest per capita crime rate in the country — and major geographic challenges to addressing it.
Katie Sullivan, who leads the department’s Office of Justice Programs, said some villages had no law enforcement and no roads.
She said more than 50 percent of women in Alaska are subject to domestic violence or sexual assault, and many have limited means to address it quickly.
“Because of the geography, your state trooper may be up to two days away from being able to get in,” she said.
Bryan Schroder, Alaska’s U.S. attorney, acknowledged that the state’s problems with violent crime and challenging terrain for law enforcement are not new, but “people are starting to focus more and more on it,” he said.
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said that Barr was personally interested in the issue and that his trip was “critical” to his decision to declare the emergency.
Barr said in a statement that he had “witnessed firsthand the complex, unique, and dire law enforcement challenges the State of Alaska and its remote Alaska Native communities are facing.”
In addition to declaring the emergency, he asked other Justice Department components to give him plans within the next 30 days to support the state.
“Lives depend on it, and we are committed to seeing a change in this unacceptable, daily reality for Alaska Native people,” Barr said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the cities where a law enforcement emergency had been declared in the past. It was Santa Fe, Tex.