Dillingham Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon offered a bill Thursday that would amend state regulations to allow village public safety officers to carry guns, weeks after the fatal shooting of an officer in the Southwest Alaska village of Manokotak.
VPSOs — law enforcement personnel and emergency responders who are coordinated by nine Native organizations, as well as by the Northwest Arctic Borough, and work in conjunction with Alaska State Troopers to provide emergency services in remote parts of the state. They are not empowered to carry guns under Alaska Department of Public Safety regulations.
Edgmon’s bill would add wording into state law governing those regulations stating that they cannot prevent VPSOs from carrying guns, provided they meet “minimum standards and training” requirements.
The introduction of House Bill 199, which is cosponsored by several other members of the House Bush Caucus that Edgmon chairs — including all four Southeast Alaska representatives — comes less than a month after the March 19 shooting of Thomas Madole, a VPSO in Manokotak. Edgmon said that incident got his attention.
The Manokotak killing was the first time since 1986 that a VPSO has been killed in the line of duty, but Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters noted in an email Friday that VPSOs have been threatened and attacked by gun-wielding assailants more recently than that.
“I have seen what appears to be a trending escalation of violence toward and experienced by VPSO’s as well (as) State Troopers,” Masters wrote. “These levels have more recently become deadly. In July of 2011 a VPSO in Napaskiak was attacked with a shotgun, and subsequently was shot by his attacker, VPSO Tom Madole was shot and killed in Manakotak by an attacker just two weeks ago, and a VPSO in Noorvik was threatened with an assault rifle just two days ago. These are just the more severe and recent.”
Edgmon said he recently spoke with two VPSOs on their way to Southwest Alaska, part of which Edgmon represents in the Alaska House of Representatives. He said those VPSOs told him they had confronted people armed with guns in the past.
“It all just came together that we needed to have this discussion immediately,” Edgmon said. “Really, hopefully it spurs a larger discussion about the importance of the VPSO Program in rural Alaska, and reinvigorates the conversation that’s been going on for many years about do we give VPSOs enough resources to properly do their jobs, in most instances hundreds of miles away from any type of Trooper support or any type of other law enforcement official.”
A companion bill to H.B. 199 was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, on Friday.
Masters wrote in his email that he backs Edgmon and Olson’s proposal.
“As I read these bills, they will allow the non-profit employers the ability to make the decision to arm their VPSO’s and will give DPS the ability to set standards and training requirements for those that are to be armed,” wrote Masters. “I fully support this. The VPSO program is much needed in rural villages in Alaska. If it is to remain valuable to those communities it must adapt to the needs to remain relevant. I also thank the legislature for the recognition of its importance and their support of this much needed program.”
Edgmon and Masters said VPSOs would require additional training to be able to wield and carry firearms on the job, but Masters said the Alaska State Troopers would be capable of providing that training.
Beyond the issue of VPSOs being armed, Edgmon suggested he hopes to see the VPSO Program receive additional interest — including an assessment of how VPSOs are contracted.
Unlike State Troopers, VPSOs are not state employees. They work for non-state groups, such as the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in the Southeast region. However, they must comply with DPS regulations and coordinate their efforts with the State Troopers.
“They’re got two masters, so to speak, and it’s not the most effective model. Isn’t it maybe time for VPSOs to be state employees, get the same pay and same benefits and same cost of living adjustments that Troopers do as members of collective bargaining units?” Edgmon asked. “Even though this bill’s very targeted, I’d like to have that broader discussion.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.