This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
The state’s $200 million public safety budget for the coming fiscal year is the same as the current year’s, but one program received a much-needed boost.
The Village Public Safety Officer Program was given enough money to hire an additional 15 people.
This will raise the number of funded positions to 116. The state is finally beginning to support this program as it did a few decades ago, when similar numbers of VPSOs were employed in Alaska’s rural communities.
The VPSO budget has grown consistently under Gov. Sean Parnell’s leadership. He made the hiring of more VPSOs part of his campaign against domestic violence and sexual assault. Funding has grown from $10.6 million in fiscal 2011 to $16.3 million in the coming year.
According to statistics presented by the administration during budget deliberations this year, the investment appears to be paying off. While total incidents handled by VPSOs — whether crimes, fires or searches — increased substantially in 2011, the actual criminal charges that resulted have declined. Domestic violence cases dropped most dramatically, from 250 in fiscal 2010 to 184 in fiscal 2011.
The trend “is a testimony that having VPSOs in villages is working,” the administration reported to the Legislature.
Village officers are not fully authorized law enforcement officers, but they do numerous important law enforcement jobs. Their first duty is to respond to potential criminal incidents. They investigate misdemeanor crimes and help Alaska State Troopers investigate major crimes. They transport prisoners, supervise parolees, assist injured people, join search and rescue efforts and even fight fires.
The regional nonprofit groups that operate the program, such as the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference, face a challenge when it comes to finding people willing to take these jobs. It’s tough work. In villages, the officers must often face family and friends as they try to sort out situations and get people to safety. So not all the positions get filled.
But with better pay and recruiting, the percentage is improving. In fiscal 2011, the state funded 101 positions. At the beginning of the year, only 68 were filled. By the end, 85 VPSOs were working.
That’s an encouraging trend. Alaska needs to provide basic law enforcement services in its rural communities. The VPSO Program is an efficient way to do it, and it’s already proving its worth.