Native groups criticize changes in public safety officer program

Posted: Monday, August 02, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Several Native organizations are criticizing the state for how it is going about making changes in the village public safety officer program.

The organizations are accusing the Alaska Department of Public Safety of not being open with them as it tightens the program's budget. State public safety officials are hoping to put more officers in remote villages by cutting administrative costs and consolidating regional programs.

Department officials "are not sharing their ideas on what they think the structure of rural law enforcement ought to look like in the future," said Terry Hoefferle, chief operations officer for Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Native Association.

Several Native organizations want Gov. Frank Murkowski to slow the effort and let an upcoming rural justice commission tackle the subject first.

The overhaul began last year when Murkowski vetoed $960,000 from the VPSO program, an agency formed nearly 25 years ago to put uniformed officers in remote villages. The veto cut 15 positions. Now 65 positions are funded.

While VPSOs report to the Alaska State Troopers, they are employed by the regional Native nonprofits. Murkowski's veto eliminated the grants to the nonprofits in Kodiak, Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.

"We were very upset" about losing five VPSOs in the Kodiak region, said Melissa Borton, community development and operations manager for Kodiak Area Native Association. "We saw public safety as an extremely important part of rural life and didn't want to see it go away."

KANA's board of directors chose to fund the $300,000 program itself, Borton said. It took substantial cuts in other KANA programs and services, she said, including replacing a staff physician with a less expensive physician's assistant.

The state later reversed its stance, Borton said. It offered to restore the VPSOs in Kodiak, Southeast and Southcentral - if Kodiak would administer the three regions' programs for half the previous cost.

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