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Officials eye new ways to add to village safety officers

Posted: February 12, 2013 - 1:02am

JUNEAU — Since taking office in 2009, Gov. Sean Parnell has made strengthening public safety in rural Alaska a priority, particularly as he seeks to crack down on domestic violence and sexual assault.

But being a village public safety officer is a tough job, and the turnover rate is high — 29 percent last fiscal year, nearly six times more than Alaska State Troopers, according to one estimate.

To bolster the ranks, officials are looking at new ways to recruit and retain the officers who serve as first responders in rural communities that can be located hours or days — depending on the weather — from the nearest state trooper.

The program is funded by the state and administered by regional nonprofit Alaska Native corporations. Its total budget for the current fiscal year is $16.3 million. Parnell wants $2.7 million for new officers in the coming year.

The officers are unique to Alaska, where most communities are accessible only by air or water and aren’t connected to a road system. Dozens of small communities have no law enforcement presence at all.

Village officers don’t carry guns but do have other equipment such as Tasers, said Beth Ipsen, a Department of Public Safety spokeswoman.

Currently, 92 of the 116 authorized village public safety officer positions are filled, with 13 of those 92 now enrolled in a training academy, said Trooper Sgt. Leonard Wallner, program training coordinator.

The number of authorized positions could grow to 131 for the next fiscal year, as Parnell has requested funding for an additional 15 officers. It’s a request he has made — and legislators have granted — every year since 2010.

Research from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center has found that villages with an officer or local paraprofessional police presence had rates of serious injury caused by assault that were 40 percent less than villages without such a presence. Research also indicated that sexual assault cases with adult victims that were initially reported to local paraprofessional police were 3 times more likely to be prosecuted than those reported directly to state troopers.

Darryl Wood, who studied the program extensively while at the center and is now with Washington State University Vancouver, said it appears Alaska is “making an earnest effort to make things better in those villages, to make things safer in those villages.”

In 2008, when officials began looking at ways to improve the program, there were 45 officers in 45 communities, Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters said. The current 92 are spread across 80 communities, and Masters said progress has been made in addressing a turnover rate that hit 44 percent eight years ago, he said.

As part of the effort, officials are looking at creating more roving positions, with officers based in hub communities such as Bethel, Nome or Kotzebue traveling to rural communities.

Masters said public safety officials are also discussing with its partners the possibility of shifts that are two-weeks on, two-weeks off, along with job-sharing that would involve a position being split between two people.

Another idea is having part-time, seasonal officers for communities that experience influxes of people at certain times of the year.

“It’s not an easy job,” Masters said. “Just the demands of the type of work it is narrows down the people that are willing to do the work and then trying to find people that are qualified to do it, that meet the minimum requirements also can be difficult.”

Indeed, the job can be a 24-7 proposition, with officers called on for search and rescue, firefighting, help in schools, working as parole or probation officers, and responding to “all volatile situations in their communities,” as the Department of Public Safety puts it. That can mean handling calls that involve assaults, drunken driving or even homicides, and securing a scene until a trooper can arrive.

The starting wage for an officer is $23 an hour, with a stipend for probation and parole duties, Masters said.

First Sgt. John Pleasant is a roving officer based in Bethel. His career began about 10 years ago in Tuntutuliak, a community of about 430 people in southwest Alaska where he is from. His father was also a village public safety officer.

He said he likes being a positive role model for kids that he teaches to resist drugs and alcohol — one of his duties. He said there aren’t a lot of jobs with good pay and benefits in rural Alaska.

He said he has mainly stuck with the job “to help the people out in the villages, from taking out the bad guy that maybe beat up his wife in front of his kids to looking for people out there when they’re lost.”

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Village Public Safety Officer program: http://1.usa.gov/xRaIcT

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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