JUNEAU — A bill that would give village public safety officers the option of carrying firearms was quickly moved out of committee on Tuesday, even though several state troopers were in line to testify.
“We already had plenty of public testimony last week,” House Community and Regional Affairs committee chairwoman Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, said before advancing the bill to the next committee.
Village public safety officers are not armed. They also are not law enforcement officers hired by cities or the state. Instead, they are hired by either regional Alaska Native corporations or the Northwest Arctic Bureau to be the police presence in a village without an officer.
Several troopers spoke against the bill last week, noting that the safety officers wouldn’t be properly trained to use deadly force. Others complained about liability issues for the state since it’s mostly nonprofit organizations that employ the safety officers.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, told the committee he and his staff reviewed the bill after public testimony last week, and found the training process for the safety officers covered under his bill was more than adequate.
Edgmon also said he felt the issue of liability is adequately covered by his bill.
Supporters last week testified that violence is on the rise in rural Alaska, but there appears to be no recent data to support the assertion.
Data from the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center shows assaults with injuries on Alaska police officers has increased 66 percent since 2002 and non-injury assaults on police officers increased by 137 percent.
But that is statewide data and only included reports from recognized law enforcement officers, which doesn’t include village officers.
However, the number of felonies and misdemeanors handled by rural courts at Barrow, Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue and Nome has remained steady over the last two years, according to figures provided by the Alaska Department of Law.
In 2013, those courts saw 1,102 felony cases as opposed to 1,166 cases in 2012. The same courts handled 4,643 misdemeanors in 2013 as opposed to 4,894 cases in 2012.
There have been isolated cases of violence against village public safety officers, though, and the spark for Edgmon’s bill was the shooting death of VPSO Thomas Madole at Manoktak last year.
It was the first killing of a village public safety officer since Ronald Zimin in South Naknek in 1986.
Last year, there were four other instances when village public safety officers were threatened with weapons, but in two cases, they were an armed member of law enforcement at the time.
In July 2011, an unarmed officer was wounded in a shooting in Napakiak.