A law officer for every community

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2010

For law enforcement in rural Alaska to be truly effective, we need to recognize the need to have some type of law enforcement presence in the community.

Alaska State Troopers do a fantastic job of responding to reports of crime, conducting investigations and making regular visits to communities and schools. However, our current hub-and-spoke model, utilized to optimize troopers' response, certainly does not provide the presence I believe is necessary to end domestic violence and sexual assault within a decade.

I am delighted to convey that Gov. Sean Parnell's administration recognizes that fact and has thereby set a goal to have a meaningful law enforcement presence in rural Alaska. We are offering every community in Alaska the opportunity to have a trained law enforcement officer - if they want one.

To start, the Department of Public Safety has requested continued funding for 15 additional Village Public Safety Officer positions every year for the next 10 years as long as we can continue to fill them. Currently, there are 71 funded positions.

The purpose of standing up a law enforcement presence in every community is to prevent crimes instead of simply responding and making arrests. It's very clear that having an officer's presence has a significant impact on reducing victimization and when victimization does occur, it has an affect on our ability to prosecute.

Research conducted by University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center determined that having VPSOs reduced the rates of serious injuries caused by assaults in those communities by 40 percent.

Unfortunately, there are 90 communities in Alaska with a population of more than 50 people that are without a constant law enforcement presence. In addition, the likelihood that the Department of Law accepted troopers' sexual assault investigations for prosecution was 3½ times greater in instances where a VPSO did the initial response.

In a state that has more than twice the average of forcible rapes as the rest of the country, we believe that getting well-trained VPSOs in more villages will have an immediate impact in lowering the number of sexual assaults and sexual abuse of minors. VPSOs are valuable in assisting troopers in their investigation of sexual assaults by taking the initial report, securing evidence and helping victims get the proper support.

As I travel around the state and visit with VPSOs, the dedication and commitment I frequently witness is amazing. For instance, Jacob Tobeluk Jr., a VPSO in Marshall, recently said "It's not just the uniform, it's not just the pay, it's the community that I work for. I love making a difference in the community." These sentiments were echoed by the many other VPSOs that work in either the village they grew up in or a neighboring community.

Fundamental to recruiting and retaining VPSOs is creating positions that provide a sense of value, achievement, belonging and empowerment. First, let's talk about adding value. We have made some significant gains to strengthen compensation for VPSOs such as increasing the starting hourly wage from $17 to $21 and implementing an automatic graduated increase for longevity.

Future plans include adding cost of living increases and facilitating the development of quality housing. I am very pleased with Gov. Sean Parnell's request of $1 million in Alaska Housing Financing Corporation grants and low-interest loans to assist communities in building VPSO housing.

These investments are working and have resulted in a 50 percent increase in filled positions during the past two years. Secondly, the day-to-day achievements of our men and women who fill VPSO positions throughout Alaska are remarkable.

In addition to providing critical support for the troopers, VPSOs' duties includes misdemeanor criminal investigations, search and rescue, emergency trauma treatment, assisting health aides and maintaining and organizing a fire department and its equipment and most importantly, do community policing. DPS provides training and oversight for the program and troopers provide guidance. A VPSO is also directed by community leaders, giving the community a direct influence to better meet their own needs. Lastly, I want to convey how important it is that we develop VPSO positions that provide employees a sense of belonging and empowerment. I believe an important step toward that goal is to emphasize the importance of hiring locally, drawing more people like Tobeluk.

I applaud the efforts of Alvin Jimmie Sr., the VPSO coordinator for the Association of Village Council Presidents, whom has been able to fill 20 of his 24 positions with Alaska Natives with all 20 positions were filled by someone who grew up in that village or a neighboring village. When you hire locally, the community has significant input in how their officers perform, what they focus on and can help provide solutions.

I want to convey how optimistic I am as this administration steps forward with the bold initiative of ending domestic violence and sexual assault within a decade. As we move forward to launching this initiative, I encourage all communities, regardless if they have officers or not, to take responsibility for the safety of their citizens, whether it's working in concert with local officers or Troopers that are in those communities or working with the Troopers that come into those communities.

There is a sense of pride and accomplishment in making the place you grew up safer. Just ask VPSO Tobeluk. VPSOs make a difference.

• Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters has spent 28 years in law enforcement including positions as a Village Police Officer, Village Public Safety Officer, Municipal Police Officer and Alaska State Trooper.

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