2012 VPSO graduating class. Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Public Safety.
When Governor Sean Parnell signs House Bill 199, approved earlier this month by the Alaska Senate, Village Public Safety Officers can legally carry firearms. The Yukon Kuskokwim region has the largest number of VPSO’s in the state. Officials with the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel say they’re preparing for the change.
There are more Village Public Safety Officers working in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta than anywhere else in Alaska. The Association of Village Council Presidents, the local (ANCSA) non-profit that runs the regional program has 31 VPSO positions, 24 are filled right now. Alvin Jimmie is the VPSO program director in Bethel. He says not all of his officer’s support getting guns.
“Some have stated that they’d rather not be armed. We have VPSO’s out there that are working in the community where they were born and raised. And now they’re taking this role of a VPSO. Well, if they confront with an aggressive person or someone who has committed a crime and that’s why I keep saying there’s a lot of pros and cons,” said Brown.
Jimmie says some are afraid they could become a target for carrying a gun. And there’s also a debate about whether uniforms should or indicate that a VPSO is armed.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act set up non-profits that are the employers of VPSO’s. The State of Alaska pays for them through a grant distributed to the non-profits.
They’re the first responders in in places with little or no other law enforcement, handling everything from domestic disputes and fires to search and rescue.
Carol Brown is the tribal advocate for AVCP. She says when the bill was first introduced last year the non-profits immediately polled VPSO’s around the state and they did not express such concerns. She says all of them thought it was a great idea.
“It was unanimous, they were all in support of a bill that would consider giving them more tools to defend themselves when they go into these situations that are basically unknown in an area that is very remote and safety is a real serious consideration. So I believe it’s a positive move forward and we’re very excited to have further discussions on how we can make this a reality,” said Brown.
Representative Bryce Edgemon, spear headed the legislation to arm VPSO’s in 2013 after an unarmed VPSO was killed in the village of Manokotak near Dillingham.
Brown says they’ll likely train around 20 VPSO’s per year, at a state training facility in Sitka.
Brown says since the bill was introduced, non-profit coordinators have been thinking about what’s next.
“Things such as what kind of standards would we adopt, what kind of training would be involved, what kind of follow-up information would be needed in order to make sure that it’s a standard across the board that protects the safety of the VPSO’s and the public. And something that is consistent, because we’re very aware of the naysayers an the concerns that people have about arming VPSO’s and we want to make sure that we’re addressing each and every one of those before we launch the very first project,” said Brown.
There are lots of questions, like will officers be held to the same standards as Alaska State Troopers or Police Departments. For example, will they be required to take a psychological evaluation? One concern Brown says is whether psych evals would be appropriate for VPSO’s in Southwest Alaska.
“We’re a highly populated, Yup’ik region. And some of these evaluations, while they have stated that they’re culturally normed and they have run through a battery of tests that involved someone from different regions of the world, there still is that question as to whether or not that’s going to be an accurate test to let us know whether that person is fit to carry a firearm. So those discussions need to continue and it will be a very, very careful discussion that we’ll be having in that regard,” said Brown.
They’re also considering whether a polygraph test will be required.
Jimmie says he and the other directors of VPSO’s need to collaborate on what standards and requirements will be imposed to determine whether an officer is fit to carry a firearm.
“If the Governor signs it, it becomes reality. And then once it becomes reality we gotta sit down again and really discuss how to train a VPSO to be armed,” said Jimmie.
The state will do all training of VPSO’s, but Jimmie and Directors of VPSO’s from around the state will meet in Anchorage next week to begin discussing standards for arming them.