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My Turn: VPSO column insulting, inaccurate

Posted: January 27, 2014 - 12:00am

My letter is in response to Chris Gifford’s My Turn first published Jan. 19 in the Juneau Empire. His column addresses that Alaskans should stop relying on Village Public Safety Officers for police protection. He also writes that rural communities deserve better. He only offers a vague solution that obviously does not have the best interest of rural Alaska in mind.

In his letter he makes the assertion that VPSOs have less authority, training, knowledge and integrity than a state trooper or police officer. I can’t help but feel insulted. I also can’t believe that anyone that considers themself a professional would make that blanket assumption about another professional agency. I also feel that the VPSOs are derided by Mr. Gifford’s comments.

We consider all peace officers as brother and sisters in blue and go through the same criticism, stress and problems as police officers. I know we laugh and cry about the same things, so I am confused why you make us out to be substandard law enforcement?

Most VPSOs are from the communities that they live and work; they are also part of the culture. Basically, the communities employ the sons and daughters of their own. To suggest that is not good enough is ludicrous and beyond an insult to the men and woman of rural Alaska. A community should take pride in having men and women that have taken the responsibility and courage to help keep their people safe. Do our communities deserve better? Of course, but not in the way of Mr. Gifford is suggesting.

The Village Public Safety Officer program has evolved so much over the years and continues to do so. The academy is currently a total of 12 weeks with another mandatory week of annual training. The VPSO training received mirrors the training, even to point of having the same instructors, of what the police academies teach. In fact, VPSOs would have fulfilled the training requirements for a police officer if we were provided with the firearms and the emergency vehicle operator course. Because, as you should know, all law enforcement training in the state of Alaska is standardized and regulated by the Alaska Police Standards Council.

Our hiring standards are strict. They may not include polygraphs and psychological tests, but every other hiring practice is standard with most Alaska police departments. I can only hope that the hiring requirements continue to improve with added salary, responsibilities and certifications.

I agree with the assessment about training and probationary periods: it creates competent officers. This is why, over the years, training for VPSOs has improved, to include field training, probationary periods, and closer supervision. A VPSO is only certified after they successfully complete the academy, FTO and one year of satisfactory work as a VPSO.

Also, the state troopers are responsible for hiring recommendations, backgrounds, supervision on criminal investigations and all training provided to a VPSO. I do not know how they can increase these responsibilities any more than they already have.

Our employers are more than corporations as you state. they are Native nonprofits made up of representatives of all our communities in the regions. They have a vested interest in the communities. They hold themselves accountable to the people they represent and serve.

The cooperation needed and exemplified by VPSO communities, the contractors and the State of Alaska shows that working together can solve certain problems.

APSC should recognize VPSOs as a form of law enforcement in the state of Alaska. Especially when you consider our arrest and citations contribute to the police training surcharge, which helps fund training for police officers.

VPSOs do investigate a majority of misdemeanors, violations and, with assistance and involvement of the Alaska State Troopers, certain felonies. We do wear numerous hats: fire, SAR, police and EMS. This does not mean one thing is sacrificed over the other; rather, we are able to offer a myriad of services to the people we serve.

In a perfect world, communities would have a trooper post, certified police officers, trained firefighters, doctors and the entire infrastructure to support these positions. But the sad fact is that we do not have a perfect world and VPSOs are often asked to step up and assume these roles. We need more qualified men and women to apply for and assume the role of a VPSO. Maybe then we will see how much more successful the program can be.

I am sure that all the DV victims, sexual assault victims, abused children and people who have been safer because of a VPSO’s intervention do not discriminate as to what certification or uniform color they possess, but rather judge them for the heart, dedication and strength of the individual who chose to step up and help their communities.

I hope that the Legislature looks at the many failures of rural law enforcement over the years and realize that the VPSO program is by far one of the best ideas to provide at least some type of comfort and safety to rural communities. So far, it has stood the test of time and will only be successful if it is allowed to adapt to the needs of the communities and people. Arming VPSOs is the obvious next step.

All we ask for is a way to defend others and ourselves. We all hope that the day will never come where we need a firearm, but if it does, give us a way to go home safely to our families.

Lastly, what you may have failed to realize is that rural Alaskans don’t rely on just the VPSOs; we all rely on each other. This is part of being a community and family. We love our communities and have a vested interest in their success, safety and longevity. I have gathered nothing from rural Alaskans that make me think they do not support their VPSOs.

Before you judge me, walk a mile in my shoes... I’ve walked more than a mile in yours.

• James Hoelscher holds the rank of 1st Sgt. and is a Village Public Safety Officer in Hooper Bay.

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