Point of View: Village Public Safety Officer program needs reform

Information concerning the Village Public Safety Officer program, through news reports and public media comments, are not totally accurate information that is being put out to the public.

In the beginning of the program, Alaska State Troopers located in the rural areas supervised and worked closely with the VPSO officers; before the program plummeted to less than half of the positions that were filled at one time. The Department of Public Safety has the authority to adopt regulations relative to corporate participation including the role of supervision. That authority for supervision was relinquished to the corporations.

The VPSO manual designates corporation employees, with little or no law enforcement qualifications, as supervises. The manual as approved or adopted by the Commissioner is authorized statue: AS 18.64.670 (c).

The VPSO coordinator for Tlingit Haida corporation (TH) is advocating the program be taken away from the Department of Public Safety and placed within the corporations to manage. Private corporations have no authority to do so. Law enforcement is a function of government, not a private police department.

Villages involved with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, were required to become incorporated municipalities. Those villages have the same power as every other municipality in the state. The city government of those communities may, by ordinance, establish public safety services including police and fire protection. The biggest reason why they do not, is they have no a tax base from which to raise revenue to support their service needs.

The only municipality operating as those who wrote our constitution envisioned is the North Slope Borough. That is due to one reason only: they were fortunate enough to be sitting in the middle of the oil patch.

I recommend a repeal of the VPSO program statutes and establishing a law enforcement grant program within the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Create a law enforcement grant program, with grant money provided by the Department of Justice and the BIA, and contributions from the nonprofit corporations. The ANSCA communities, which are municipalities of the state, can then pass ordinances creating their own police department. They can apply for grants to fund hiring and support for their police department. The officers would report to the mayor and city council instead of a non-government, private corporation who takes an unknown amount of revenue off the top for administrative purposes. How much is unknown. This could go direct to funding the program for “village” public safety. The present costs for the nonprofit’s administration of the VPSO program could go directly to provide service.

For the population of most villages eligible for a VPSO or VPO, there is an existing position already established, the Village Police Officer, for which the Alaska Police Standards Commission has a classification. This would be a good starting point to meet today’s rural public safety needs.

They would attend training and become certified by Alaska Police Standards Council. Grants could be made available for infrastructure, equipment and supplies as needed. I would suggest the position be reclassified to that of “Rural Police Officer,” RPO, and not have Village Public Safety Officers as there are communities that now have both. Once RPO positions are established we can look at a public safety position for the communities with need for a fire and/or EMS presence.

This provides a career path and stability instead of the high turnover and difficultly experienced in recruiting. The most critical issue is to remove the corporations from the grant process and get funding directly to the communities. This empowers the communities to exercise supervisory authority and assistance from the Department Public Safety as needed. Such action will remove the political posturing from the process.

These changes addresses village desires to have self-determination, and local influence over their own community, instead of a regional corporation that is the primary beneficiary of the grants and have no real skin in the game.

There are options — you just have to think outside the box. It has been said; “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity.”

Richard L. Burton is a former Commissioner of Public Safety who worked in the Gov. Jay Hammond administration from 1974-78 and later with Gov. Wally Hickel from 197-74. He lives in Ketchikan.

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