AFN delegates call for improved public safety

Natives discuss rural justice at annual gathering

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Rural village public safety officers remain underpaid and overworked, conditions contributing to their falling numbers, officers said at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

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Rural justice, and finding ways to improve it, was one of several issues that delegates discussed Thursday. An estimated 3,000 delegates attended seven work sessions with the goal of solving problems as such as global warming, costly energy and subsistence rights.

In one session, members of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, created by Congress in 2004, heard stories from villagers about the lack of village law enforcement. The commission traveled around the state, gathering stories about rural justice and presenting recommendations in a draft report released last year. The final report is about to be released, members said.

The state Department of Public Safety has addressed some concerns, said Bill Tandeske, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News. There is now funding for 80 village officers, who augment Alaska State Troopers in rural Alaska. However, only 49 positions are filled.

The VPSO program reached its peak in the 1980s with 124 officers, according to a media report. There were 65 officers in 2004.

Village officers who spoke Thursday noted the stress and long hours of the job. Enforcing laws in small villages against relatives discourages prospects. Working lonely hours with little support does not help, they said.

They said officers have used their own snowmobiles to transport suspects and their own houses as holding cells. Village officers so not carry guns and sometimes spend days waiting for troopers to deal with dangerous criminals, they said.

Some said support has worsened since the state cut general funding to villages, cutting off money that once helped pay for equipment or gasoline.

David Charles, a village public safety officer in Akiachak, said he pays for his own gas and works overtime unpaid. VPSOs quit, he said, because of the tough treatment they sometimes face from other villagers.

"Some days it's miserable for a VPSO," he said. "Some days you sit in your office and start crying."

Pay has improved, said Loretta Bullard, president of Nome-based Kawerak, a Native regional nonprofit serving the Bering Strait region, from about $11 an hour a few years ago to about $19 today.

The Department of Public Safety also has increased funding, Tandeske said.

It spent $422,000 18 months ago, buying four-wheelers and other vehicles for every village public safety officer who asked, he said.

Many of the complaints are outdated stories, he said.

"Some say there's not enough money, so you raise salaries," he said. "We instituted a retention bonus. People say they're paying for their own vehicles. I just don't buy it."

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