Recent Information concerning the Village Public Safety Officer program, through news reports and public media comments, is not totally accurate.
For example, there are recent opinion pieces stating the VPSOs are supervised by the Alaska State Troopers; VPSOs are not supervised by the troopers. If you read the existing regulation manual for the program, you will see the supervisors are employees of the nonprofit Alaska Native regional corporations. The supervisors — the VPSO coordinators — are hired by and paid by the corporations with grant money provided by the state through the Department of Public Safety’s budget.
In the beginning of the program, troopers located in the rural areas supervised and worked closely with VPSO officers. That was before the program plummeted to less than half of the positions that were filled at one time, when we had 90 or so positions. The department has the authority to adopt regulations relative to corporate participation, including the role of supervising the program. Supervision for some reason was relinquished to the corporations and abdicated by the Department of Public Safety.
The VPSO manual designates corporation employees, with little or no law enforcement qualifications, to supervise this type of work. There is no evidence that the manual was approved or adopted by the commissioner as required by statue.
I also understand the regional corporation VPSO coordinator for the Tlingit Haida corporation in Southeast Alaska, is advocating the program be taken away from the Department of Public Safety and placed within the corporations to manage on their own. Does he not realize private corporations are not government agencies and have neither the responsibility, the power, or duty to provide public law enforcement? Law enforcement is a function of government, not a private police department.
Another point: All the villages involved with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, were required by the act to become incorporated municipalities. Those villages have the same power as every other Alaska municipality. The city governments of those communities may, by ordinance, establish their own public safety services, including police and fire protection. The biggest reason why they do not, in my opinion, is they do not have a tax base from which to raise revenue to support their public service needs.
The only municipality that does, and is operating as those who wrote our Constitution envisioned, is the North Slope Borough. That is due to one reason only: They are fortunate enough to be sitting in the middle of the oil patch.
I recommend a repeal of the VPSO program statutes. Establish a law enforcement grant program within the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Then create a law enforcement grant program with grant money provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and contributions from the nonprofit corporations.
The ANSCA communities, which are municipalities of the state, can then pass ordinances creating their own police departments. They then can apply for grants to fund hiring and support for their police departments. The officers would report to the mayor and city council instead of a non-government, private corporation that now takes an unknown amount of revenue off the top for administrative purposes.
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.
A VPO would attend training and become certified by Alaska Police Standards Council. Grants could also be made available for infrastructure, equipment and supplies as needed. I would suggest the position be reclassified to that of “Rural Police Officer,” or RPO, and not have Village Public Safety Officers, as there are some communities that have both.
This would provide a career path and stability over the present 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 have assistance from the Department of Public Safety as needed.
The changes I outlined address villages’ 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.
There are options. You just have to think outside the box.
Richard L. Burton is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. He lives in Ketchikan.