For many rural communities across the state, Village Public Safety Officers are the only form of consistent public safety presence.
Until recently, the Northwest Arctic Borough had zero VPSOs in any of their villages. Since January, public safety officials have begun to fill the vacant posts, with several more hired in the last month.
Aucha Kameroff is the Public Safety Director for the Northwest Arctic Borough. Since taking over the department, staffing the empty VPSO program has been a priority.
“That’s the highest need within our department, I believe, and for our borough because our residents need protection for life and property and things like that,” Kameroff said.
In an initial batch of hires, the Northwest Arctic Borough sent three candidates to the VPSO training academy in Sitka in February. However, two of them dropped out, citing personal reasons. The one who remained finished the program and now serves as the VPSO in the village of Kiana. The borough hired another in April to serve two weeks on, two weeks off in Noorvik, though there are plans to transition him to Shungnak.
At a Northwest Arctic Borough Public Safety commission meeting last week, Kameroff announced that three more hires were made to serve in Noorvik, Ambler and Noatak. Additionally, Kameroff says they’ve made an offer to hire a full-time VPSO coordinator.
“So we’re pretty much going on an upswing with VPSOs and hiring them,” Kameroff said. “We have other applicants in the process.”
She says the new hires will start at the Sitka VPSO academy in July. She says the department of public safety has changed the training to run 16 weeks instead of the normal nine weeks.
Craig McConnell is director of maintenance for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District and he sits on the public safety commission. He expressed concern over whether these new hires would finish the academy, in light of the two dropouts earlier this year. Kameroff says she is optimistic.
“So far, from what I gather, I think they’ll be successful,” Kameroff said. “I’m just thinking in the positive way. But I was that way last time and two dropped out.”
Tanya Ballot of Selawik chairs the public safety commission. She asked Kameroff if the borough plans on having a VPSO stationed in her village. She says the city of Selawik has tried to restart its focus on public safety, but it’s been a struggle.
“The city is doing all that they can. They have a chief of police and a schedule with two VPOs (Village Police Officers),” Ballot said. “Our village has been without for quite some time, so it’s like re-learning to ride a bicycle. The respect from our community and our youth. That’s a challenge right now.”
VPOs are local peace officers hired by rural city governments that don’t necessarily have the same level of training as VPSOs. Kameroff says that one of the main things standing in the way of getting VPSOs in a village is having a place for them to stay.
“The housing and living quarters are going to be the key element in getting somebody into a village quickly,” Kameroff said. “So the next place I’m going to work with is Selawik and look at Kivalina as well.”
Ballot says the COVID-19 pandemic has made getting housing for VPSOs in Selawik difficult.
“Due to COVID, we are utilizing and preparing the house that used to be the VPSO’s home into a quarantine facility, as we don’t have any other space available in the event that we have somebody test positive and need to isolate them,” Ballot said.
McConnell with the school district says that if housing is an issue, the district has vacant buildings available to house officers until school starts in the fall.
“I think we can help you through the summer, and then maybe beyond that until you get your housing back in Selawik, if housing is the issue,” McConnell said.
If all of the new VPSO hires complete their training this summer, there will be five villages that will have trained officers, after months of having none.