Legislative working group recommends clarifying VPSO role

Snow falls on the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

In 2019, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a public law enforcement emergency for rural Alaska after his visit to the state. Alaska lawmakers then formed a working group to fix the Village Public Safety Officer program, a key state service which has battled budget cuts, high turnover and an evolving job description.

Now the working group has come up with a list of recommendations that lawmakers hope will solve some of the issues with the program. 

Related: AG Barr announces $42 million in tribal grants to help victims in rural Alaska.

First on the list is to revise the state statute that details what the Village Public Safety Officer program is supposed to do. Rep. Chuck Kopp, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the working group, said the program was initially supposed to help with wildlife management and search-and-rescue efforts. 

“It had much less emphasis on law enforcement, you know, keeping the law, apprehending violators and keeping people safe. But then the program kind of just dramatically evolved,” Kopp said. 

According to Kopp, the program’s evolution is not reflected in the state statute. He said that the feedback that the working group received suggests that revising it will make it easier to fix other problems in the VPSO program, like funding and the lack of flexibility for VPSOs to cover other communities in addition to the ones they are assigned. Kopp says it could also help with high turnover rates.

Related: LISTEN: How to we improve law enforcement in Rural Alaska?

“The way the program is structured, there is no really flexibility for the people who are the boots on the ground,” Kopp said. 

VPSOs are usually the only law enforcement in a remote community, and are first to act during an emergency. It can take hours and sometimes days for an Alaska State Trooper to get to a community, usually because of weather. 

But there are less than 40 VPSOs covering the entire state of Alaska, leaving many communities without any kind of law enforcement.  Only four VPSOs are currently based in four communities the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, according to Azara Mohammedi, the director of communications for the Association of Village Council Presidents.  AVCP compacts with 56 tribes for services, like the VPSO program. 

But AVCP is working to hire more. Mohammedi said they have one application currently in the hiring process and eight more applications waiting to be reviewed. 

Since August, the working group has held eight meetings, usually listening sessions around the state to gather feedback, including the one in Anchorage last week.

Among the feedback is the need to create more flexibility with funding for the nine non-profits and one borough that oversee VPSO programs throughout the state. The working group also wants to establish a formal government-to-government consultation process at the state level that would consult tribes before any changes are made to training or regulation. The Alaska Department of Public Safety will continue to advise and train VPSOs.

Sen. Donny Olson, a Nome Democrat, co-chairs the working group. He hopes that this time, with this list of recommendations, the solutions will be permanent.

“In the next five to 10 years I don’t want to hear these same issues coming back at me,” Olson said. ” And I plan to be here.” 

The working group plans to finalize the recommendations by the end of the month., and Kopp says they will focus on revising the statute during the 2020 Legislative session, which starts on Jan. 21 in Juneau.