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Interior Alaska VPSOs say they would prefer to have firearms

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Posted: Saturday, December 21, 2013 10:14 pm | Updated: 9:00 am, Mon Dec 23, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — If it were up to them, most of the Interior's village public safety officers say they should be able to carry guns while on the job.

The 12 village public safety officers who work in the Interior wear Alaska State Troopers-style uniform and have the power to make arrests. Unlike their law enforcement colleagues, they are not authorized to use firearms.

That could change this year with a proposed regulation now open for public comment. The new state rules would allow officers to carry guns and specify training requirements for VPSOs who choose to carry firearms.

TCC poll

Sgt. Jody Potts, who coordinates the Interior's VPSO program through the nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference, plans to speak in support of the rules change this week when she gives the Tanana Chiefs Conference board an update on the VPSO program.

The rules change is supported by eight of the Interior's 12 village public safety officers -- all the officers who responded to a survey this fall‚ she said. A survey of residents in communities with VPSOs showed most felt VPSOs should be able to arm themselves, she said.

VPSOs around the state are employees of tribal government nonprofits like the Tanana Chiefs Conference. They receive their training through the Alaska State Troopers academy in Sitka and work alongside troopers.

Potts said she personally supports arming VPSOs from her own experience as a VPSO for almost four years in the Copper River Basin.

"VPSOs are in remote villages, responding to volatile situations with no backup. They need to be allowed to protect themselves," she stated by email. "At the end of the day, I want to be able to go home to my children and know that heaven forbid, should I ever be faced with a deadly situation, I am able to protect myself."

Allowing VPSOs to carry firearms also would be good for recruitment, she said. Statewide, the VPSO program now has about 95 officers with plans to add 15 more per year throughout the next half decade. It's not always quick to fill vacancies, and the program averages a 30 percent turnover rate, said Capt. Steven Arlow, who oversees the VPSO program for the Alaska State Troopers.

Cpl. Philip Plessinger, one of the Interior's three roving VPSOs, who serve multiple villages, knows firearms well from his former career in the Marines and from his experience as a National Rifle Association firearms instructor.

Like Potts, Plessinger favors the regulation change because, should the need arise, he said he wants to be as well-armed as the people he faces. He's twice been threatened with firearms during his 3 1/2 year career as VPSO, he said.

The regulation is particularly noticeable because he carries a firearm in his private life, he said.

"The second I get out of this uniform, I can arm myself; that's the sad thing," he said. "Here I am in uniform, potentially in bad situations, and I can't arm myself."

Existing regulations do say that VPSOs can have guns in "emergencies," a regulation that's generally considered to apply to bear issues, he said. The emergency provision is impractical because officers can't easily anticipate emergencies, he said.

A long road

The Village Public Safety Officer program dates back to the late 1970s. The firearm issue is being discussed now because of increasing violence in the villages and increasing law enforcement responsibilities for VPSOs, said Walter Monegan, who used to oversee the Alaska State Troopers as the Alaska Public Safety Commissioner between 2006 and 2008. He's now the president of the Alaska Native Justice Center.

VPSOs are supposed to be "law enforcement support," but they're increasingly doing real law enforcement, Monegan said. That's a good thing, he said, because it represents a cultural shift among Alaska State Troopers.

In the early day of the VPSO program, "it was more territorial. (The attitude among Alaska State Troopers was) 'this is our job. If you've got something big and ugly, we'll handle it,'" he said. The attitude provided a poor public service because troopers are often unable to respond quickly enough to emergencies in remote villages, he said.

"Back in those days, we didn't have community policing. We didn't have a concept of community policing."

VPSOs take on increasing risks as they handle more law enforcement duties. In March, the on-duty killing of Manokotak Village Public Safety Officer Thomas Madole catalyzed the process of reviewing the firearms policy. Madole, a former Assembly of God pastor who started working in law enforcement late in life, was shot dead with a rifle in the southwestern Alaska village while responding to a report of a potentially suicidal person.

In April, a bill was introduced in the Alaska legislature to change the VPSO firearms policy, but it didn't pass. In November, the Alaska Department of Public Safety began studying a policy change. Their administrative review does not require legislative action. Under the proposed change, the department would budget $62,000 next year for VPSO firearms training. The Department of Public Safety would allow VPSOs to carry if they completed "a basic firearms training program that is certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council or substantially similar training."

A public comment period on the proposed rules change closes Jan. 17.

John Coghill, a Republican North Pole state senator who chairs the senate's judiciary committee, generally supports the idea of arming VPSOs, but he said this week that it should be a legislative process, not an administrative one.

"You have to have a little bit of a public debate beyond the regulation package," he said. "You're talking about an authoritative deadly force, which is different than the regular citizen (using deadly force)."

In particular, he said some work needs to go into determining the training requirements. The judiciary committee likely will take up the matter this coming legislative session, he said.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.

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