Alaska editorial: Public safety officer program needs boost

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2007

Alaska is having a rough time recruiting Village Public Safety Officers. Little wonder, when you consider the conditions:

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Remote villages, family ties that can trump the law, unforgiving wilderness at the doorstep, high rates of alcohol abuse with all the violence and misery it causes, Alaska State Troopers sometimes a day or more away.

Think of Anchoragepatrolled only by unarmedofficers.

Think of trying to be the law in a small village where you're the outsider.

Think of how many people you know who could handle police work, diplomacy, firefighting, safety education, search and rescue, snowmobile mechanics and the right response to both perpetrator and victim of a violent crime, both of whom may be relatives.

What's amazing isn't that the state struggles to fill the ranks or the high turnover rate (40 percent, according to an Alaska Justice Center study published in 2000). What's amazing is the degree of success. Right now 48 of 51 positions are filled in Alaska villages. But as Maj. John Glick, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety, pointed out, that can change any time.

The state's 2008 capital budget includes two hopeful appropriations from federal funds. It has $2 million to train and equip VPSOs and another $2 million for VPSOs to fight bootlegging.

The key word, though, is "hopeful."

A lot has to happen before Bush residents will see more law enforcement.

In passing the state budget, Alaska lawmakers merely agreed to accept federal money that hasn't arrived yet. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens is working on the $2 million for training and equipment. Alaska has to fill those last three state-funded VPSO slots before it can qualify for the other $2 million of federal money to fight bootlegging. With the federal money, the state could afford 80 VPSOs.

If the state could find them. That, as Maj. Glick said, is the "crux of the problem."

The problem is getting some attention.

Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan will go to Kotzebue next month to discuss improving the VPSO program. Among his ideas: creating uniform standards and a career advancement track for all three types of Bush law enforcement officers. It would allow VPSOs, tribal police officers and village police officers hired by local communities a way to upgrade their skills and eventually earn full trooper or police status.

State Sen. Donnie Olson will chair a VPSO task force that will hold fact-finding meetings in Western Alaska and Kodiak this fall.

For all the difficulties - or maybe because of all the difficulties - the state's VPSO program needs state, federal and community support. When the program works, it puts respected, trusted officers on the ground in Alaska villages, officers who know the people and are comfortable in the culture. They can respond to emergencies - or, better, prevent them.

Two years ago, some rural advocates lost a lawsuit that tried to force the state to put more troopers into small Bush communities. The suit contended VPSOs were a second-class, discriminatory substitute for real police officers.

The courts said it was not their job to second-guess the type or level of public safety protection.

Nevertheless, the suit did make a good case for better law enforcement in the Bush. The $4 million for VPSOs could go a long way to help.

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