The legislature’s Community and Regional Affairs Committee convened Tuesday to discuss House Bill 199, a proposal to allow arming village public safety officers in rural Alaska.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham was the bill’s chief sponsor. He told the committee that the measure would establish protocols and funding for bringing qualified VPSOs through firearms training. In addition to high rates of turnover, issues with pay, housing, and facilities, Rep. Edgmon enumerated on the safety concerns voiced by VPSOs.
“You know, the whole crux about the bill is making sure that VPSOs can do their jobs right. A VPSO walks into a situation that sometimes is lethal and he or she is armed with a baton, with a taser, they’ve got handcuffs on them and their wearing a protective vest,” Edgmon said. “And, unfortunately, I’m here to tell you as somebody born and raised in rural Alaska, the social issues, the numbers of domestic violence calls, the episodes of violent confrontations have been on the increase.”
The funding structure laid out in the current draft of the bill would bring 20 qualified candidates annually through a training program at the police academy in Sitka. At $62,000 a year the funding would cover travel, liabilities, lodging, and firearm equipment for the VPSO’s who complete the program. And ultimately the regional entities in a given area would decide whether they want their VPSO’s to carry firearms.
For the majority of the two-hour session, calls from across the state—exclusively from current or former law enforcement officials—poured in. What emerged was a patchwork of perspectives on the problems policing rural Alaska. The litany of testimony offered circled around the issue of state law enforcement relying more and more on VPSO’s to help with rural policing, but weariness over current and future regulations and standards within the program.
At its most generous, the criticism focused on specific points in implementation. And at the other end, Jake Metcalf, executive director for the union representing public safety officials says the expanding reliance on VPSO’s is an inadequate way of compensating for a more costly trooper presence.
“They’re not certified police officers, so I think rural Alaska is getting a different type of law enforcement than the municipalities and a lot of regions of the state that have significant trooper resources,” Metcalf said.
What was not questioned is that violence against law enforcement officials has been steadily increasing. The very impetus for HB199 reigniting the decades-old debate on whether or not to arm VPSO’s was the death of a Manokotak officer last March.
Former Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters says that the hazards have led some VPSO’s to break the law by arming themselves in order to do their jobs.
“With these escalations of use of force against them, which we certainly know about, their job is becoming more and more dangerous to the point where there are VPSOs carrying firearms today against the regulations that are in place and against policies that are in place that prohibit them,” Masters said.
Criticism and recommendations for HB199 were in abundant supply during the session—but the vast majority of those who spoke were ultimately in support of it. Rep. Neal Foster’s remarks on the discussion summed up the prevailing sentiment.
“Until we can get more resources out to rural Alaska so that we can give the same level of protection to folks out in rural Alaska as we do in other parts of the community,” Foster said. “I think this bill is a step in the right direction and it’s doing something that we can do now with a minimal amount of resources.”
Committee Co-Chair Gabrille LeDoux did not bring the bill to a vote. Instead, she ended yesterday’s session asking legislators to consider all they’d heard, and saying that in her own experience guns are an integral component to life in bush Alaska.