ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Tribal representatives in Alaska told U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday that rural Alaska Natives suffer from multiple public safety problems, including no law enforcement presence in multiple villages, substance abuse and alarmingly high rates of violence and sexual assault.
Barr is at the start of a four-day visit to Alaska. Among his first actions in the visit, Barr heard from Alaska Natives Wednesday who participated with him in an Alaska Native justice roundtable in Anchorage.
His visit came the same day special counsel Robert Mueller countered criticism from Barr and others that he should have decided whether to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction of justice during his investigation into Russian election meddling.
In his first public comments since the investigation began two years ago, Mueller said indicting a sitting president was “not an option” because of a Justice Department legal opinion. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided the evidence didn’t support an obstruction charge against Trump.
At the roundtable meeting, Barr did not address Mueller’s remarks or take questions from reporters. As he left the discussion, he didn’t respond to a question from The Associated Press about Mueller’s remarks.
During the roundtable meeting, Vivian Korthius, representing the Association of Village Council Presidents, echoed others in saying more law enforcement officers are needed. She noted that there were six press cameras in the room. That’s the same number of village public safety officers in her 48-village region, she said.
“So simply put, we need your help,” she said.
Communities with no police presence often must wait long stretches before state troopers can arrive to investigate crimes. Sometimes the wait is as long as a full day, participants said. They also spoke about the need to strengthen tribal courts.
Barr spent most of his time listening to tribal representatives detail the lack of law enforcement in villages, the slow response times, the violence against women and abuse of alcohol and drugs, including opioids. In the larger rural hub communities, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault have limited services available, or none at all in the villages, according to participants.
Near the end of the session, Barr said he was open to a follow-up as suggested by a participant.
“I consider this an introductory discussion,” he said of the roundtable.
Earlier in the day, he met with top Alaska law enforcement officials. Plans also included visiting the state crime lab.
Barr will wrap up the visit with the rural communities of Bethel, Galena and Napaskiak.
Barr’s Alaska trip comes as Congress and advocates have renewed a focus on violence against Native American and Alaska Native women.
Federal figures show they are victims of violence at astonishing rates. The most recent numbers show that more than half have faced sexual and domestic violence at some point in their lives.
A 2013 federal report found that at least 75 Alaska Native communities had no law enforcement presence. Tribal leaders have spoken candidly about barriers that victims face in seeking justice, saying some sexual assault victims must take boats or planes to urban areas to get a medical forensic exam.
State authorities handle criminal investigations in more than 200 Alaska Native villages.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, are joining Barr on parts of his visit, and Sullivan participated in the roundtable discussion.
Loretta Lynch, who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama, also visited Alaska Native leaders to discuss public safety and other issues in June 2016.
Associated Press writer Mary Hudetz in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.