Several lawmakers learned Sunday evening and Monday morning that they wouldn’t make it to Juneau in time for the session to reconvene this week. Alaska’s pilots can take off and land in some pretty rough weather, but sometimes the fog is just too heavy.
In Juneau, life goes on despite a few canceled flights. In rural Alaska, off the road system, those canceled flights can delay Alaska State Troopers from responding to dire situations, situations that village public safety officers can only have so much control over, says Jason Wilson, the VPSO manager at Tlingit-Haida Central Council.
“On a day like this when it’s foggy, there’s no Troopers getting into Kake, there’s no one getting into Angoon,” Wilson said. “If something big were to happen, that community is relying on that one sole VPSO.”
Last March, 54-year-old Thomas Madole, a VPSO in the village of Manokotak, was shot and killed while responding to a call about a possible suicidal person.
Troopers were able to respond from nearby Dillingham within an hour. They learned that Madole had been trying to run away from 42-year-old Leroy B. Dick, the man who killed him. Two weeks later Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, introduced House Bill 199, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, introduced Senate Bill 98.
If the bills pass, VPSOs would be allowed to carry firearms while on duty as long as they pass a state-approved training course and the organization they are employed through — often a village corporation or local tribe — approves. Nearly a hundred VPSOs across the state are currently allowed to carry a Taser, pepper spray, a baton and handcuffs.
The House bill has solid bipartisan support with 16 of Alaska’s 40 representatives — from urban and rural areas — named as cosponsors.
Public testimony for and against the House bill was heard at the Capitol early Tuesday morning during a Community and Regional Affairs meeting.
Deputy Commissioner Terry Vrabec said that the Department of Public Safety supports the bill and is ready to train VPSOs to carry firearms.
“We are comfortable that we can develop a training program to make this successful,” Vrabec told the committee. “We realize that not every officer may be able to get through some of the training, but we value the training just as we would with any other police officer in the state. They all must go through the training and be successful in it.”
Former Public Safety Commissioner and former VPSO Joe Masters also testified in support of the bill. He said he’s seen increased violence in rural areas and several assaults against police officers in the past few years involving a gun.
“We found that since 2002, police officer assaults that resulted in injury increased by about 66 percent and non-injury assaults increased by a corresponding 137 percent,” Masters said. “What this means is that on average there’s an assault being committed against a VPSO in our communities about every month.”
Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, said he agrees that Alaska is becoming more dangerous, but that arming VPSOs is not a solution. He said that the state needs to find a way to put fully certified officers in Alaska’s villages.
“As an armed officer, (there are) many nights that I’m scared to go into a situation. I couldn’t imagine going into it unarmed, but handing a gun to an untrained or lesser trained person isn’t the answer to it,” Metcalfe said. “All it’s doing is placing Alaskans and the officers at greater risk. What we have to do is not place them in those situations and the answer to that is tough. The answer to that is expensive.”
Metcalfe also pointed out that while the estimated cost of the additional training for VPSOs is about $62,000, that’s a fraction “of what’s going to happen to the state if we shoot someone wrongly.”
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, formerly represented a House district that included Kodiak. She said that not arming VPSOs is inconsistent with village life where a firearm could not only protect the officer from a dangerous person, but also from a bear down the road.
“As someone who has previously represented rural areas where guns are as much as a part of life as carrying a sandwich to school, ... to keep (VPSOs) from carrying arms as we do now, they may be the only people in the villages who are not carrying arms,” LeDoux said. “It’s not like Anchorage, It’s not like Fairbanks. Guns are just totally integral to just about everything that you do.”
Sen. Olson, the sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate, said during a press conference that he’s generally in favor of arming VPSOs because they are the “first line of defense” in his home village of Golovin. He said the killing of Madole, the unarmed VPSO in Manokotak, reaffirmed that for him. He also addressed concerns about liability should a VPSO wrongly shoot a person.
“Anytime deadly force is being used, someone is going to be liable and we see that not just with VPSOs but also with other members of public safety,” Olson said. “As a concern, we want to make sure that it’s addressed, but I don’t think it’s a concern that should go ahead and stop the progress of this bill.”
Wilson, the VPSO manager for Southeast, believes that the nine men and women he supervises need to have a way to protect themselves beyond what’s currently available. From Pelican to Kake to Hydaburg, these officers are the first responders to all kind of situations, he said.
Wilson said that no matter what happens with the bill, the VPSO program needs to evolve. He said he felt confident that the officers he supervises would pass the additional state training and evaluations to qualify to carry a firearm. He said that Tlingit-Haida Central Council’s delegates and leadership have supported the idea of armed VPSOs in their communities.
“These men and women need to have a mechanism to be able to take care of themselves,” Wilson said.