The Village Public Safety Officer Program may be the only line in the state budget where there has been no talk of reducing over the past few years. It’s a program that provides first responder service to rural Alaska communities – and is a critical element in the fights against domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide.
The House Committee that will write the program’s budget for next year opened hearings on Wednesday for an update on its status. Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters, who began his career as a VPSO in Unalakleet, told the House Public Safety Finance Subcommittee that the department has been using every resource the committee has provided to build up the agency, but there’s still a long way to go.
“In 2008, we had 45 VPSO’s in 45 villages. And in 2011, we were looking at 88 VPSO’s – these are actually VPSO’s hired. In fiscal year 2012, we were allocated the ability to go up to 101. Currently we are at 88,” Masters said.
Legislators, however, wanted to know why the hiring of officers for 15 new positions was taking so long. Kotzebue Democrat Reggie Joule said the budget, including money for those 15 new officers, has been available since mid-April – six months ago. Masters told legislators that he expects to have 20 officers already on the job ready to begin a training academy set to begin in January. He said it’s the same as with hiring state troopers – the department has a constant recruiting program.
“This past year we’ve experienced something we hadn’t over the past four – for some reason we’re seeing a fairly significant decline in the number of qualified applicants coming out of our process,” Masters said. “We’re seeing high numbers going in, but we’re not necessarily seeing the high numbers coming out.”
“We’ve been very successful in filling vacancies in 2009, 2010 and for some reason the latter half of 2011 we have not seen those high numbers that allow us to maintain hiring for new positions and keeping up with attrition.”
Masters said the VPSO program will likely begin a new collaboration with Village Public Officers – police on the payroll of local communities – and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ law enforcement branch. The federal agency has never had any presence in Rural Alaska, but Masters says they plan to begin offering technical assistance and training support next year.