My Turn: Despite drop in rates, Alaska still plagued by sexual assaults

  • By COL. JAMES E. COCKRELL
  • Monday, March 14, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Recently, the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center released the results of their most recent Alaska Victimization Survey, which has shown a decline in intimate partner and sexual violence since 2010.

In 2010, 12 out of 100 Alaskan women were reported to have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both during the past year. By 2015, that number dropped to 8 out of 100. While this is a significant decrease in violence toward Alaska women, it is still too high of a rate.

The recent declines in violence against women may be attributed to statewide prevention and education programs, better trained police officers and prosecuting attorneys and a positive change in social unacceptance of violence against women. While our numbers are still much too high, Alaska is on the right track in reducing violence against our women.

For your Alaska State Troopers, our number one priority has been and will continue to be sexual assault, sexual abuse of minors’ investigations and other forms of interpersonal violence. Even in the current fiscal realities of budget reductions, AST believes that victims of these crimes should not have to feel the impact of the state’s budget crisis on top of the trauma they are already experiencing from their victimization.

Due to the serious nature of these crimes, the trauma inflicted on the victim by the offender and the profound impact on our communities, AST has prioritized training for its troopers in the area of sexual assault investigations. AST provides instructors and sends troopers to attend the 40-hour Sexual Assault Response Team course put on by the Counsel on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault twice a year. AST sits on the Leadership Committee of ChildFirst Alaska and sends troopers to the 40-hour course on child forensic interviewing, often filling nearly one-third of each class.

This past fall, AST brought up a national expert from the International Association of Chiefs of Police to train law enforcement and other professionals in trauma-informed sexual assault investigations. Almost every trooper that patrols communities in Western Alaska was flown in to receive this first-rate training. Additionally, AST has trained over 1,600 troopers, municipal law enforcement officers, VPSOs, advocates, prosecutors, forensic nurses and other allied professionals in domestic violence or sexual assault related areas from 2014 to 2016.

It is an expectation that your troopers respond to sexual assaults through a victim-centered approach and in a coordinated effort with medical providers and victim advocates. Ongoing training is critical to ensuring troopers meet those expectations.

Beyond training, AST must periodically review how these and other cases are being investigated. To that end, the division has partnered with the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center, housed at UAA on more than one occasion to provide analysis of sexual assault case processing patterns. This collaboration helps AST further analyze discussions around the allocation of resources and response to patterns seen in these cases.

For example, the most recent analysis revealed that nearly one-third of all sexual abuse cases analyzed came from the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Alaska. This data, in combination with the experiences the troopers in the region have relayed, resulted in the development of the Violent Offenders Unit based in Bethel, where two troopers and a sergeant take on the more complex sexual abuse cases, homicide and other felony criminal investigations.

Despite AST’s efforts, however, Alaska still continues to lead the nation in sexual assault rates. It is the hope that continued prioritization of this issue will aid in building trust with victims and encourage reporting. Sexual assault and interpersonal violence is a statewide epidemic that organizations and communities must come together to remedy.

• Colonel James E. Cockrell is the director of the Alaska State Troopers.

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