Three Advance in Pilot Project to Arm VPSOs



First Sergeant James Hoelscher instructs officers at a 2014 training. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.
First Sergeant James Hoelscher instructs officers at a 2014 training. (Photo By Ben Matheson, KYUK-Bethel)

Three Village Public Safety Officers have been selected to advance in the VPSO Arming Pilot Project with training this month in Sitka. 21 VPSOs initially showed interest in taking part. There were seven earlier this year still in the process.

Veteran VPSO First Sergeant James Hoelscher of Hooper Bay is the only VPSO set to be armed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region. Also advancing are Sergeant Philip Plessinger of Fairbanks and Noatak’s Corporal Michael Gagliano.

Lieutenant Andrew Merrill with the Alaska State Troopers says there are many reasons why the 18 other VPSOs did not continue in the program.

“We had a physical fitness test, which was a new process for many VPSOs, and some could not physically pass that test. They have the opportunity to pass that test and participate in the future. Other VPSOs that were fully capable physically and thought they could use force later thought about the fact they live in a community in which they are related to the majority of the community: cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. The thought of using deadly force against one of their family members had them choose to not participate,” said Merrill.

Participants also had to undergo an extensive psychological exam during the process. In 2014 the Alaska legislature passed the law allowing VPSOs to carry guns, in addition to a taser and baton. It was spurred by the death of a VPSO in Manokotak, Thomas Madole, who was shot and killed while unarmed.

The VPSOs that were selected are each employed by the Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference and Northwest Arctic Borough.

In addition to the firearms training, the three VPSOs will receive instruction on defensive tactics, weapon retention, police communication, scenario and judgment training, ethics, and use of force. There are plans for extensive in-the-field training with troopers for the pilot project VPSOs. They are expected to graduate from the program in April and could be armed soon after.