In rural Alaska, it’s not uncommon for one person — the Village Public Safety Officer — to handle law enforcement and emergency medical services, serve as fire chief or, when needed, help raise a totem pole.
Kasaan’s Zachary West was recognized on Monday as Southeast Alaska’s VPSO of the Year for his above-and-beyond contributions to the Prince of Wales community he calls home.
The list of duties in the job description for a VPSO is non-exhaustive. Jason Wilson, manager of the Southeast Alaska VPSO program under Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, listed at least a dozen roles a VPSO might fill, from the obvious (like law enforcement and animal control) to serving as harbormasters, counselors and oil spill responders. There are eight VPSOs on staff in Southeast Alaska, though one is currently on deployment, and some officers serve more than one community.
“They’re like superheroes,” Wilson said.
It was difficult to pick one officer to bestow with the award, he acknowledged, but said “this year, one did stand out to me.”
State Troopers often handle law enforcement in rural Alaska, but one night they had their hands full, Wilson explained. There was a case of minors consuming alcohol, then a case of domestic violence. Troopers asked VPSO Clinton O’Malley and West to handle the underage drinkers.
What could have been a bit of scolding turned into a life-saving mission.
“When they got there, all were passed out and one was passed out in the back of a vehicle in their own vomit and unresponsive,” Wilson said. “Tell me that’s not scary.”
Due to West’s quick actions, Wilson said, “this person has the opportunity to live another day.”
Another stand-out moment was when West was sent to a totem pole ceremony in Hydaburg and, rather than just standing by and keeping watch, he helped carry the poles.
“It might seem pretty simple,” Wilson said. “That’s a person being part of a community, getting involved — and that’s what we ask our VPSOs to do.”
West has been with the program for two and a half years, he said, and he chose Kasaan because he has family on Prince of Wales. He’s from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, originally.
He likes the job because it’s never boring.
“It’s a great mix of public services,” West said.
West estimated only about 20 or 30 percent of the job is law enforcement, though that may vary from community to community.
VPSOs serve communities across the state without law enforcement present — “they are the ‘first responders’ to all volatile situations in their communities,” according to their website. The program has been in place since the late 1970s.
CCTHITA runs the VPSO program in Southeast Alaska with the support of the State of Alaska. The memorandum of agreement also signed on Monday signifies each entity’s willingness to work more closely together, including on the VPSO program, CCTHITA President Richard Peterson said.
“We work really will with the state of Alaska to manage the VPSO program in Southeast Alaska,” Peterson said. But he’d like the state and CCTHITA to be able to do more for the officers who do so much for their communities.
“The VPSO program doesn’t offer retirement or health care, anything like that ... they don’t have a 401k plan,” Peterson said. “We need to start working on that. They really are putting their lives on the line, and what do their families get? How are they taken care of?”
Gov. Parnell, who also signed the memorandum of agreement, agreed that the VPSO program is one of the successes of their partnership. Parnell thanked them for putting themselves in harm’s way and said, “will continue to honor, support and fund VPSOs.”