Budget cuts leave Village Public Safety Officer Program on shaky ground

On June 28, the same day U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska, and made more than $10 million available for the state to address public safety concerns in Alaska’s Native villages, Gov. Mike Dunleavy presented $444 million in line-item vetoes, including a $3 million cut to the Village Public Safety Officer Program (VPSO).

The program trains and facilitates law enforcement in rural Alaska through Native corporations, and village safety officers are often the first line of defense in emergency situations. Safety officers are certified peace officers with arrest powers, as well as certified emergency trauma technicians. They are also trained in firefighting, law enforcement and search and rescue.

The cut will not result in any job losses or communities losing their officers, Matt Shuckerow, spokesperson for Dunleavy, said. Public safety has been one of the governor’s main priorities since taking office. In his State of the State address, he told Alaskans that public safety was priority number one.

Captain Andrew Merrill, who is the Department of Public Safety’s Statewide Director for the VPSO program, said that day-to-day operations will not be affected by the cut. The reduction in funds will, however, prevent any new hires from being made, Leonard Wallner, VPSO program coordinator for the Chugachmiut Native Corporation, said.

Chugachmiut employs village safety officers in Chenega and Tatitlek and has openings in Nanwalek and Port Graham. Wallner said he doesn’t know how he will fill those positions with the proposed budget. He said he and the other regional VPSO coordinators have been left with a lot of questions as to the future of the program.

Wallner said that the budget as laid out by the governor only funds existing positions and leaves no money in the operating budget for recruitment. In addition, funding has been eliminated for the annual regional training, a five-day specialized training program that Wallner said is unique to village public safety officers.

“Basically we have the funding to exist, and that’s about it,” Wallner said.

An investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found one in three communities in Alaska, totaling 70, mostly Alaska Native, had no local law enforcement at some point this year. Many of the communities are home to regions with the country’s highest rates of poverty, sexual assault and suicide. On the Kenai Peninsula, the villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham rely solely on Alaska State Troopers for their law enforcement.

At the end of June, 17 of the 55 authorized village safety officer positions were vacant. Shuckerow said the veto will reduce that number of authorized positions to 47, leaving nine still vacant and a 19% vacancy rate. According to Wallner, none of those vacancies could be filled with the proposed budget.

In 2010, the village public safety officer program had well over 100 officers throughout rural Alaska, Shuckerow said. Since then, that number has dropped dramatically, due largely to a recruitment and retention issue. Shuckerow said it’s not for lack of trying. The Department of Public Safety has allowed for pay increases and additional bonuses to encourage recruitment and retention, but today, the vacancy rate is at 31%. In the last six years, VPSO pay has nearly doubled, Shuckerow said.

Wallner attributed the decrease in the number of officers to an increase in the training and eligibility requirements for village public safety officers over the last few years. Wallner said that, starting around 2014, DPS started gradually increasing the requirements for the program to the point that they were essentially the same as what is required of state troopers. This included doubling the length of time required at the trooper academy from eight to 16 weeks and putting the physical fitness tests on par with the tests taken by troopers. Not only did that decrease the number of potential applicants who would be eligible for a public safety officer position, it also meant that candidates who completed VPSO training were just as qualified to take positions as state troopers or city police officers. Wallner said that this has led candidates to forgo the VPSO position for other law enforcement positions in more populated or less remote areas.

“Why work somewhere remote when you can just get a job in Soldotna?” Wallner said.

Wallner added that current DPS commissioner, Megan Price, reverted the eligibity requirements to what they originally were, but this is a recent change and regional coordinators have not yet seen what impact, if any, these regulatory changes will have.

Since 2016, vacancies have resulted in program monies being returned to the general fund, Shuckerow said. The $3 million vetoed with the FY 2020 budget are funds that have not been used for multiple years and it was anticipated that those funds wouldn’t be used in FY 2020, Shuckerow said.

“As a result, these monies come out to be approximately $3 million each year that sit in a fund not used, he said. “The governor said ‘let’s pull this money back that’s traditionally been unused due to the vacancies within the program, and let’s use those for areas in which we can provide public safety.’ This funding will put (the program) in line with what has traditionally been spent.”

The village public safety officer program is a part of the Alaska State Troopers, but officers are not hired by the state. Instead, officers are hired by one of the 10 Alaska Native corporations, depending on what community an officer is in. On the Kenai Peninsula, the Chugachmiut Corporation is responsible for public safety officers in Nanwalek and Port Graham, but both of those communities currently have vacancies. Shuckerow says each of the 10 VPSO employers have the financial capacity to continue recruiting and hiring those officers in their respective boundaries.

Hiring public safety officers is a priority for Dunleavy and the Department of Public Safety, Shuckerow said. The governor’s office says they’re working collaboratively with the Department of Public Safety, other entities and stakeholders to see what can be done to adequately address public safety.

In May, Barr visited rural Alaska, and about a month after announced a law enforcement emergency in the state’s most isolated areas. That emergency declaration immediately made $6 million federal emergency funds available to the state, with an additional $4.5 million coming at the end of July.

Shuckerow said the governor is still looking into exactly where those funds will go and how they will be spent. He says the funds have a broad focus, and could help cover village police officers, tribal police officers, mobile detention centers and other infrastructure needs.

Shuckerow said it’s important to note that the Alaska State Troopers are also experiencing a recruitment and retention challenge, and that Dunleavy has included bonuses and other incentives in an effort to hire more law enforcement across the state.