Thirty years ago, the Anchorage Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize for chronicling the problems of rural Alaska in a series titled “People in Peril.”
“Across the state, the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts of Bush Alaska are dying in astonishing numbers. By suicide, accident and other untimely, violent means, death is stealing the heart of a generation and painting the survivors with despair,” News editor Howard Weaver wrote at the time.
Village Alaska had a poverty problem then as it has today. But People in Peril chose to focus on a rural region drowning in alcohol, suggesting as it did that if the drinking just stopped, things would eventually get better.
Now the ADN, in cooperation with ProPublica, is back with what it hopes will be another Pulitzer Prize-winning series redefining the problem. This time the newspaper has teamed up with Outside media to argue the problem is a lack of law enforcement to keep people from harming each other.
The crisis of alcohol and despair has evolved into a crisis of crime.
“U.S. Attorney General William Barr says he’s struck by ‘sense of urgency’ on Alaska rural crime crisis,” the newspaper headlined last week, although Barr never used the words “crime crisis.”
On a national level – the level at which Barr deals – it would be hard to describe Alaska’s problems, as bad as they are, as a crime crisis.
Juxtaposed against what is happening in some American cities, Alaska doesn’t look so bad. Alaskans fed a steady media diet of crime news might have trouble believing this, but the data doesn’t lie.
The homicide rate in St. Louis stands at 64.27 per 100,000 people. In Baltimore, it is 51.46 per 100,000.
Parts of both cities are regularly described as “war zones.”
Alaska’s homicide rate is now the highest in 20 years at 10.2 per 100,000, but the number is inflated by the state’s biggest urban areas – Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Of the 78 murders in the state in 2017 (the last year for which complete data is available) 48 or about 62 percent happened in Anchorage, where there were 35 homicides, and Fairbanks, where there were 13. The residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks comprise about 44 percent of the state’s population.
No figures are readily available for the homicide rate in what is variously defined in differing ways as “rural Alaska,” but the 30 murders that happened outside of Anchorage or Fairbanks would put the murder rate for the rest of the state at about 7.2 per 100,000.
That is almost the exact same homicide rate as friendly Minneapolis and below the homicide rate for Boston. Alaska has horrible problems with sexual assault and domestic violence, but many American cities now have worse problems with murder.
To someone in Barr’s position, deciding where to spend limited federal tax dollars to provide more law enforcement to fight crime has to be difficult because St. Louis and Baltimore aren’t alone as kill zones.
Missouri has the highest black homicide rate in the United States, according to a study by the Violence Policy Center.
“The study…found that the homicide rates for blacks in Missouri is 46.24 per 100,000, more than double the national black homicide rate of 18.67 per 100,000,” St. Louis Public Radio reported last year. “The national white homicide victimization rate (is) 2.67 per 100,000.)
“‘Each day in America, the number of black homicide victims exceeds the toll in the Parkland, Florida mass shootings,” Violence Policy Center Executive Director Josh Sugarmann said in a statement. ‘The devastating and disproportionate impact homicide, almost always involving a gun, has on black men, boys, women, and girls in America is an ongoing national crisis.'”
In Missouri as in Alaska, the statewide rate is driven up by the deaths in poor urban neighborhoods – the same, crime-plagued neighborhoods driving up the homicide rates in so many cities:
Birmingham, 42.1 per 100,000; Detroit, 35.64 per 100,000; Kansas City, 33.37 per 100,000; Memphis, 30.69 per 100,000; New Orleans, 30.42 per 100,000; Newark, 25.26 per 100,000; Philadelphia, 21.12 per 100,000; and much-talked-about Chicago seeming almost comparatively peaceful at 19.71 per 100,000.
“As is true throughout the country, the city’s most insidious issues can likely be linked back to poverty,” the Baltimore Sun observed in February. “It is not really surprising that in Baltimore, where 22.1 percent of people lived in poverty in 2017, well above the state’s 9.4 percent, the crime rate is high, for instance. People will turn to burglary, shoplifting and other crimes to get through life if economic opportunities and jobs don’t exist.
“We beef up law enforcement to attack crime, devote more funding to try and improve inadequate schools and tackle health disparities by getting more people to the doctor. But what if Baltimore could solve all of its persistent social problems by getting rid of poverty?” the newspaper’s editors asked.
The pit of poverty
Baltimore is the site of a now much-discussed study led by sociologist Karl Alexander from John Hopkins University. The study spent 25 years tracking the lives of 800 Baltimore school children.
What Alexander and his associates found was that the poor remained largely locked in poverty, and that the social consequences for young men were devastating.
Poverty’s similar effect on Alaska Natives are hard to ignore. On a per capita population basis, Natives are approximately 100 percent overrepresented in the state’s prisons and jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Today as in the ’80s, their problems have little to do with race and a lot to do with poverty. Native village Alaskans are little different from the people struggling in the African American neighborhoods of Baltimore or in the impoverished sections of white middle America, as The Atlantic reported a year ago.
“The decline in life expectancy and health among less-educated white Americans is often attributed to ‘deaths of despair’ – those from conditions like substance abuse and suicide,” reporter Olga Khazan wrote. “Suicides, the CDC reported last week, are up nearly 30 percent since 1999.
Despair. The issue Weaver identified 30 years ago in Alaska.
It is a problem for many in a supposedly classless society ridden with differences in class.
“All-American Despair,” Rolling Stone magazine headlined just days ago: “For the past two decades, a suicide epidemic fueled by guns, poverty and isolation has swept across the West, with middle-aged men dying in record numbers.”
Substitute “Alaska Natives” for “middle-aged men” in that sentence, and you have the description of one of the big problems village Alaska faced 30 years ago and still faces today. The other problems – alcohol abuse, drug abuse, huffing, sexual assault, domestic violence, thievery – sort of go hand in hand with poverty and isolation in today’s electronically connected world.
Weaver long ago understood that many, if not most, of the village problems were tied to the helplessness of joblessness, but that’s not what the newspaper reported. Instead, it said this:
“A growing sense of helplessness simmers in alcohol throughout the Bush. Among a growing percentage of Alaska Natives, life has become equal parts violence, disintegration and despair. An epidemic of suicide, murder and self-destruction threatens to overwhelm cultures that have for centuries survived and prospered in the harshest environments on earth.”
The part economics plays in all of this, Weaver said at the time, was far too complicated and difficult for the newspaper to untangle. The newspaper couldn’t solve that problem, he argued, but would get to it in the future.
In the near term, Weaver decided, the ADN would focus on the problem about which something could be done: alcohol.
A man who’d wrestled with the demon rum himself, Weaver understood well the 12-step program to sobriety advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one:
“‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Taking this first step and admitting you have a drinking problem can be difficult and scary, but it is the foundation of all positive change,” AA says.
Weaver believed that if the drinking problem in rural Alaska could be solved the positive changes were sure to follow. And thus, with the best of intentions, the ADN painted a dramatic portrait of the problems alcohol caused in rural Alaska.
Only there was a little more to it than just this.
People in Peril was ADN’s bid to win a second Pulitzer, and the media-government complex that controls journalism’s biggest prize isn’t inclined to hand out awards for complicated and difficult stories that leave people scratching their heads about what to do.
The Pulitzers like to see things simple. The Pulitzers like to see a problem clearly defined. And most of all the Pulitzers like to see stories that spur problem-solving, government action.
As the Pulitzer award noted, the ADN series focused attention on the “despair and resulted in various reforms.” The latter was key to the prize. The series led the government to act.
People in Peril drove a renewed focus on Alaska’s “local option” law that allowed communities to ban alcohol. More communities went “dry.” State efforts to keep alcohol out of villages increased.
A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded the Alaska Alcohol Interdiction, Investigation, and Prosecution Program that built on People in Peril led to the convictions of hundreds of people on charges of trafficking in booze.
But Alaska’s Prohibition did not appear to solve the bigger societal problems of rural Alaska.
“While the program was found to be well designed and executed, we did not find that it had a statistically significant impact on the targeted outcomes of reduced crime, accidental deaths, or injuries,” the report said. “One of the plausible explanations for this finding is that the program is simply ineffective. It is possible that smugglers are finding alternative means of evading detection using air transportation, or are using alternatives to air transport. Local production of alcohol may offset whatever gains the RAI (Rural Alcohol Interdiction) Program makes in deterring smuggling or seizing bootlegged alcohol.
“Western Alaska may have experienced what most other U.S. prohibition efforts have experienced: the demand for alcohol may be strong enough to motivate bootleggers to overcome whatever obstacles law enforcement places before them.
“It is also possible that the program ‘dosage’ was insufficient to make a large enough dent in the availability of alcohol in the target areas to produce a measurable effect on outcomes. There may be so much alcohol transported into dry villages that even doubling the amount interdicted or deterred may reduce the overall amount of alcohol by only a small percentage, and if so, the program would have to be much larger in scope and to interdict much more alcohol in order to produce a statistically significant impact.
“The true baseline amount of alcohol in dry villages is not readily measurable and would be difficult to estimate accurately. One way to test whether the program was too small in scope would be to significantly expand the program, track process and outcome data for several years, then test whether there are effects of the increments from no program to the present RAI, and then from the present RAI to an expanded program.”
The ADN is now advocating that the “dosage” can be increased enough to shift the dynamic. Maybe it can. No one knows. The question of whether hiring more police reduces crime is much debated.
Certainly everyone wants to believe more law enforcement means less crime, but “experts say there is little evidence that more cops equals less crime,” The Marshall Project, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and USA TODAY reported after an in-depth examination of the subject earlier this year.
“Responding to public panic over urban violence during the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed off on millions of dollars in federal funds to hire thousands of local cops across the country,” they reported. “In 1997, two years after the money started to trickle out of Washington, the nation had 242 police officers for every 100,000 residents. By 2016, that number had dropped to 217 as law enforcement agencies shed jobs in the aftermath of a national recession while the nation’s population grew.
“The national violent crime rate, over those 19 years, dropped by 37 percent. According to FBI data, in 1997 the national violent crime rate was 611.0 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2016 the violent crime rate was 386.3 out of 100,000 inhabitants.”
The District of Columbia has the highest rate of violent crime in the country – more than eight times that of Maine – and employs 722 officers per 100,000 residents, the highest proportion of law enforcement per citizen in the country, according to Wikipedia.
Alaska, which is second only to the nation’s capital in terms of violent crime, employs about 189 sworn officers per 100,000 residents, close to the same as Maine. New Mexico, which has about the same violent crime rate as Alaska, employs 252 per 100,000 residents.
The national average of near 220 is driven up by the nation’s murder capitals which employ huge numbers of police compared to most communities: Birmingham with 371 per 100,000; Chicago with 442 per 100,000; Detroit with 321 per 100,000; Memphis with 347 per 100,000; New Orleans with 408 per 100,000; Philadelphia with 432 per 100,000; and St. Louis with 384 per 100,000.
Despite all the police, their homicide rates are horrendous.
Among the nation’s largest cities, Irvine, Calif., has the lowest police staffing rate at 92 per 100,000. It also has the lowest rate of violent crime of any U.S. city of more than 250,000.
Despite this, “residents are exposed to what can feel like a constant flow of reports about crime on news and social media,” the Orange County Register reported. “However, the chances of Irvine residents becoming a crime victim in recent years are lower than ever — at least according to data — and that’s consistent with declining crime rates nationwide since the early 1990s.”
“I’ve heard people say it’s getting worse and there’s just no evidence of that,” John Hipp, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine told the newspaper.
“If the city’s safer than ever, then why are at least some residents feeling the opposite?” reporter Tomoya Shimura asked.
Hipp had a simple answer. There is reality, and there is what the media portrays as reality, and sometimes they differ.
“Clearly, public perceptions of the risk of crime are driven less by statistics than by compelling stories and graphic images,” as criminologist Gary LaFree observed at The Hill earlier this year. He warned against an “apparently natural predisposition to regard crime as more serious than it is, accelerated by the electronic media and harnessed by politicians for their own purposes.”
Fear sells. It doesn’t always solve things.
“Over the past 40-plus years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the Bush (to solve the problem),” observed an Alaska attorney intimately familiar with the issues of rural Alaska since the 1970s. “And what has been the outcome? Today, the rates of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, teenage and adult suicide, and acts of violence are way worse than they were when I arrived and prior to the expenditure of those hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Why that is – and what, if anything, Alaskans of good will can and should be doing to try to improve the situation – is the real story about which…ProPublica should be reporting, not the lack of law enforcement.”
That may or may not be true. But what is certain is that the simple and dramatic story is easier to both write and digest than the complex and complicated story, much more likely to spark government action, and thus much more likely to win a prize.