Alaska Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Bryan Barlow testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on January 24, 2024. Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage looks on in the background. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Bryan Barlow testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on January 24, 2024. Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage looks on in the background. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Leaders from the state’s Public Safety Department proposed staffing a council that addresses human trafficking to the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. They said a staff would allow them to better collect and aggregate data to measure the issue.

They also told legislators that the agency needs to fill its open positions to combat the issue on the law enforcement side.

The department is motivated to bring accountability to traffickers and patrons, but significant unfilled trooper positions are hindering its response, Deputy Commissioner Bryan Barlow told legislators.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that we’re dealing with a number of vacancies within our department,” Barlow said. “There realistically are vacancies such that it depletes our ability to investigate numerous areas of our areas of responsibility that we want to do a better job in.”

There are currently 62 commissioned officer vacancies between the Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Wildlife Troopers, out of 411 funded positions. Austin McDaniel, the agency’s spokesperson, said Alaska’s law enforcement agencies are facing similar hiring headwinds as others across the country.

The National Congress of American Indians has studied trafficking and found that communities where there are low levels of law enforcement are especially vulnerable to it.

Barlow said the agency would like to place more emphasis on time-intensive investigations once it fills the vacancies, and that the agency is making a number of efforts towards that goal, including hiring bonuses.

Its academy in Sitka begins classes next week and McDaniel said the agency hopes to graduate as many as 20 new troopers by June. “DPS is offering hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for lateral officers and $15,000 for new recruits and we offer the highest starting salary for any law enforcement agency in the state at $39.72/hour ($82,618/year) and one of the highest wages in the nation,” he said in an email.

Commissioner James Cockrell was in the audience at the meeting. He has said that once vacancies are filled, he would like to significantly boost staff to 400 Alaska state troopers and 100 Alaska wildlife troopers — the Legislature currently funds 321 state trooper and 90 wildlife trooper positions, McDaniel said.

Staff is a setback across the board when it comes to a state response to human trafficking, according to officials. The Governor’s Council on Human and Sex Trafficking is currently a volunteer effort; leaders in public safety and victim services across the state meet under an unfunded administrative order. Barlow told the committee that their group wants to continue its work measuring the scope of the issue and taking meaningful action, but a dedicated staff would help it achieve its goals.

“This is a council that doesn’t yet have funding, not in statute or anything like that. And we’re running off commitments and dedication of the council members,” Barlow said.

Committee Chair Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, filed a measure, House Bill 259, that would change that by establishing the council in law and allowing funding for staff so that it can continue its work. The bill is part of a package of trafficking-related legislation Vance has filed. She said the bills aim to protect innocent Alaskans and are her top priority.

TePas said the bill is “extremely important” so that the council can move forward with its goals, but some representatives balked at the request for funding to staff the effort.

“I’m sorry, but this is another example of ‘let’s just spend more money and we can get it done,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage.

He asked the council to aggregate data so legislators have a clearer picture of trafficking in the state, but he did not support paying for the staff public safety officials requested.

“I want to kind of go on the record and say not everything requires additional staff … What I’m advocating for is a system change. It puts everyone on the same page; when they start doing their reports, we might even be able to use less staff,” Johnson said.

Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, agreed with Johnson and expressed frustration that the council did not have data to show the committee.

“I just don’t understand why we weren’t prepared to have that information,” she said. “Just because there’s a little bit more added to what we’re asking [doesn’t mean] that we necessarily need more staff. I mean, sex trafficking isn’t new.”

Katie TePas told the committee that the council already works with data from multiple different sources around the state to try to measure the scope of trafficking, but the work to aggregate the data in a useful way is a heavy lift for a volunteer council. She said the bill also includes guidance on data collection and standardized language.

“That would be something that the council would work on in the future of trying to standardize language, potentially standardization of screening tools,” she said.

Vance acknowledged that the state is looking at creating efficiencies this year — she pointed to the governor’s executive orders as an example — but said she believes this work rises to the top. She said her bill would put the council under the existing leadership of the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to keep the fiscal impact low.

“It’s important enough that I think the Legislature needs to make the prioritization, because as we know, it costs us more later,” she said. “Let’s stop this before it gets any worse.”