Continuing protests have kindled a national conversation about racism and excessive force by law enforcement especially on racial minorities. In Alaska, that’s resonated with Alaska Native families that have lost loved ones at the hands of police.
Across Alaska a growing outcry for police reform has galvanized many Alaska Natives. A rally in Ketchikan this month attracted hundreds of demonstrators, some carrying signs highlighting the fact that Native Americans are among racial groups most likely to be killed by police.
Cody Eyre dies in a hail of police gunfire
Cody Eyre was shot to death two and a half years ago by police in Fairbanks. His mother had called 911 that Christmas Eve. She was concerned about her son — he was drunk, distraught and heading into the snowy darkness with a .22 caliber pistol. He was 20 years old.
His sister Samantha Eyre-Harrison says even people she was close to didn’t really know what to say.
“After I lost my brother, there were a lot of people that felt really uncomfortable with the subject of officer-related deaths and you know, police brutality,” she said in a recent interview.
Then the sights and sounds of George Floyd’s life slipping away at the hands of Minneapolis police shocked the nation’s conscience.
“And suddenly overnight, it became okay to talk about things that maybe before it wasn’t okay to talk about,” she said. “Like talking about police brutality and talking about racism, talking about topics that were tough to discuss.”
But she says for many of her friends in Alaska, solidarity extended primarily to people in the Lower 48.
Understanding the data
Alaska’s relatively small population makes it difficult to meaningfully compare the rate of police killings with other states or prove a racial bias. That’s because a small sample size can be skewed by just a few cases.
The Washington Post built a database tracking fatal police encounters since 2015. In Alaska, 39 people have been killed by police. Of those at least nine were Alaska Native. But, on the surface while Alaska Natives only make up about 15 percent of the population, they’re close to a quarter of all police killings in the state.
Cody Eyre’s killing remains controversial. He was carrying a loaded gun when he was shot. But relatives say he never threatened to harm anyone but himself.
Fairbanks police released an edited 11-minute video compiled from bodycam and dashcam footage before five officers fired 40 shots in two volleys.
“That video you shared, Mayor, was edited — it was edited. Before you even seen it was edited,” the late Fairbanks social justice activist Frank Turney told the Fairbanks City Council during a June 10, 2019 meeting. He took city leaders to task for not investing more in non-lethal weapons for its police department. To date, the family says authorities still haven’t released the full video footage taken by police.
“There’s a lot more to that story,” added Turney, who passed away late last year. “But shoot a man 40 bullets in him? 40 bullets?”
State prosecutors cleared the three state troopers and two Fairbanks police officers who fired their weapons. They reasoned that Cody Eyre had pointed his handgun in the direction of officers and threatened them and that justified the use of deadly force. (The family has since filed a wrongful death suit that’s pending in federal court.)
A victim’s family questions use of lethal force
A family member of another suicidal Alaska Native man killed by police in Fairbanks addressed the city council that same evening.
“My husband had a gun to his head,” 24-year-old Lisa McEnulty told the city council. “Why would they shoot a person who who was contemplating suicide?”
That man was Kevin McEnulty. His death came 15 months after Cody Eyre’s. The two cases have parallels. Both were Alaska Native men in their 20s. Both were armed and intoxicated and threatening to kill themselves in a public place.
A bystander shot footage of the March 31, 2019 standoff in the McDonald’s parking lot.
The unidentified woman describes seeing a man with a gun to his head outside a green car. “They keep on telling to put the gun down, take it away from his head and he’s screaming. ‘No!’” she says as she’s filming. Seconds later a shot rings out — it’s immediately answered by a barrage of gunfire.
His wife Lisa McEnulty shared the video of his final minutes on social media in late May.
“He pointed at his head he shot up in the air once and he got shot 13 times,” Lisa McEnulty told CoastAlaska in a phone interview.
She says the outcry over police violence in recent weeks has sparked renewed interest — and sympathy — for her family. The video has thousands of views.
Kevin McEnulty left behind two young children. And she prefers to think of happier times when they were together. Like this moment in 2015 when he sings along to a pop song on the radio.
But she said he also struggled with drugs and alcohol. He was in treatment for more than a year. But he kept drinking and their relationship frayed.
“He asked me for a ride, like an hour before and I was like, ‘No, I can do it; I’m sorry.’ Because I was tired of his drinking,” she recalled.
Authorities say he’d threatened a woman with a gun and fired a shot in the air earlier in the day. The woman’s father called 911 and gave a description of the green car he was riding in. Officers stopped the car near the university campus and ordered everyone out and an armed standoff ensued.
An official report says he goaded police to kill him. But he also asked them to call a Fairbanks police officer he knew by name. And his wife. He gave officers a phone number to call. The report says the officer he wanted to talk to wasn’t on duty at the time. His wife says she didn’t get a call until after he was dead.
She says he probably was trying to commit ‘suicide by cop’ but she wishes officers had helped him speak to someone he trusted before closing in.
“I just — they should’ve tried harder,” she said.
Officers cleared in McEnulty’s death, while family isn’t notified
Until this month Lisa McEnulty hadn’t seen the state’s report clearing the officers. And she’s been asking for it. Records requests with university police, Alaska State Troopers and Fairbanks police seeking bodycam and dashcam footage and police reports were filed by her attorney months ago.
CoastAlaska inquired whether the Department of Law had weighed in whether deadly force was justified. Little more than an hour Department of Law’s criminal division director John Skidmore sent a nine-page report that had cleared the officers.
The report — dated April 21 — says Kevin McEnulty’s erratic statements, coupled with a loaded gun and close proximity of fast food diners meant police were justified in shooting him when they did. No charges would be involved against the two officers involved, it said.
His family didn’t know about that report — even though it came out more than seven weeks ago. After pointing out that this isn’t the first time in recent years that families of people killed by police haven’t been notified after officers have been cleared, Skidmore replied by email:
“We believe all victims should be treated with dignity and respect,” he wrote on Monday. “While the actions of law enforcement were justified and therefore did not support filing of criminal charges, this does not mean Mr. McEnulty’s family are not victims in the loss of their loved one. We should be contacting victims to advise them about decisions we make. I have just confirmed we failed in this instance to do so. We will be contacting them today. Thank you for alerting me to this.”
Veteran cop wants officers to respect their communities
Law enforcement veterans say the key to repairing relationship between police and communities is transparency and getting the facts out. This is not a good example.
“If that is truly what happened — and I have no reason to believe it didn’t — then then it was a failure on the troopers’ part,” Walt Monegan, a former Anchorage police chief and two-time commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, told CoastAlaska.
Monegan was a cop for 37 years and later executive director of the Alaska Native Justice Center. From patrolman to chief, he’s been involved with mental health crises and their aftermath.
“You try to isolate and and get the individual to calm down and sometimes it does work, we’ve done it,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve seen it done in my career.”
He says even if a police officer’s use of deadly force is justified, “it doesn’t replace the tragedy that had taken place.”
As a long-term police officer of Alaska Native ancestry, his advice to current law enforcement is being feared by your community is not the same as being respected.
“Fear is not respect and both respect and trust are faster realized when it is extended first,” he added. “If you want to be heard, it is easier if you listen first.”
Living with systemic racism
Measuring something as subjective as racism is difficult. So is ascribing police’s use of force to bias.
But Lisa McEnulty says racism is something she experiences in daily life. She says she wants fellow Alaska Natives to reject a “culture of being silent” and speak up for their rights. She grew up in Shungnak an Inupiat village on the Kobuk River. But since moving to Fairbanks to complete her university degree she say she’s often made to feel like an outsider.
“When I walk into Walmart, people look at me and sometimes they follow me around the store,” she said. “If I don’t have on a full face of makeup, or if I don’t look professional or the way they want me to look in their eyes, they’re gonna follow me and they’re gonna automatically think that I’m a threat.”
That’s one person’s experience. Others may vary. But when it comes to police encounters, researchers have shown consistently that Native Americans including Alaska Natives are more likely to be killed by officers than their white peers.