JUNEAU — The Department of Public Safety is investigating what changes would be necessary if the state were to allow Village Public Safety Offers to regularly carry firearms, Commissioner Joe Masters said Tuesday.
The shooting death of an unarmed VPSO in Manokotak last month left many questioning whether Alaska should do more to allow those who protect Alaska’s rural communities — which sometimes take hours for the state troopers to reach — to defend themselves.
The officers typically carry pepper spray, a collapsible baton and a stun gun. They’re also trained to use a shotgun to deal with wildlife issues, but they generally do not take them on duty.
Masters said DPS plans to look at the issue closely over the next few months.
“I think the attacks on VPSOs are representative of the larger issue, and that’s the general increase and escalation of attacks on law enforcement officers in the state,” Masters said. “If there is in fact this change of threat profile on our officers, and it includes VPSOs, then we need to assess whether or not there needs to be changes.”
In response to the incident, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, proposed a bill that would have allowed VPSOs, who typically act as the first responders in emergency situations, to carry firearms. Bristol Bay is the only part of the state in which a VPSO has been killed in the line of duty in the last 27 years.
HB199 was still in committee when the Legislature adjourned Sunday, meaning lawmakers won’t consider it until next year.
Currently, VPSOs are only allowed to carry a firearm for a specific emergency that would require one, according to Masters.
VPSOS can use a handgun in an emergency, but any incident in which a VPSO carries or discharges a firearm on duty must be reported.
“It wasn’t designed to be a police position in the community; it’s an overall public safety position in the community,” Masters stressed. “It would be an error to think that the simple solution is that they be armed.”
Still, Masters doesn’t want the department to get ahead of itself without gauging the opinion of the regional Native nonprofit corporations — who actually employee VPSOS — throughout the state.
The state would need to change its policies regarding training, certification and insurance for VPSOs and the nonprofits as well as regulatory and statutory changes to allow VPSOS to carry a gun. DPS would also have to decide whether they would require the Native corporations to arm their VPSOs or allow them to.
“I believe that VPSOs should be armed, or should have the capability of being armed,” Masters said. “But I say that respectful and mindful that I am not their employer.”