Thanks to a big raise awarded by the Alaska Legislature, the Village Public Safety Officer program has added officers for the first time in years.
The numbers of those officers, who assist thinly spread Alaska State Troopers, have dwindled steadily for the last two decades thanks in part to a combination of low pay and difficult working conditions.
The program peaked in the 1980s with 124 village police. In April, there were just 47.
But in July, starting wages jumped from $16 an hour to $21 an hour, sharply boosting interest in the job, said Capt. Steve Arlow, head of the troopers in Western Alaska.
Six new VPSOs have been added to the program in recent months, bringing the on-the-ground number to 53, he said.
More could be on the way. Officials have seen a spike in applications, including from former VPSOs, Arlow said.
VPSOs, who report to troopers and receive much of the same training, serve as the highest level of front-line law enforcement in the villages. They carry tasers instead of guns, and they can stabilize dangerous situations until troopers arrive by plane from a post in hub communities such as Kotzebue or Bethel.
The Legislature provided an extra $660,000 that will fund new positions in regions that have met their VPSO hiring goals, he said. At least two regions will benefit from that money.
Kawerak Inc., which coordinates the VPSO program in the Nome region, will see its officer allotment increase from seven positions to nine. The boost comes because the nonprofit had already filled all the positions it had been allotted.
And the Association of Village Council Presidents, which coordinates the VPSO program in the Bethel region, will see its VPSO allocation increase from 19 officers to 22, Arlow said.
The nonprofit organization, which provides social services in 56 villages in Western Alaska, will get the extra help because it had filled all 19 positions it had been allotted, said Alvin Jimmy, the VPSO coordinator in Bethel.
Interest in the program has soared since the pay increased, he said.
"I've received numerous calls, numerous calls from people wanting to be VPSOs," he said.
He's happy for the three new positions, but said more are needed because many villages still lack them.
Six applicants who hope to work in the region and have passed a preliminary review are now undergoing rigorous background checks. Jimmy is also trying to determine which villages need the new VPSO positions the most.
City or tribal governments in many villages employ tribal or village police. These officers are usually poorly trained compared to VPSOs and carry only batons or pepper spray. Because they're not part of the state program, they lack the support VPSOs get from troopers.
Tribal or village police aren't paid as much and turnover is high, so villages that rely on them have clamored to hire VPSOs, said Jimmy. Some are offering up free housing and utilities to win a new VPSO post.
The higher starting pay is sufficient in a village, where food, stove oil and gasoline are costly, said Dorothy Alexie, a new VPSO in Pilot Station. Longevity raises that come with the job are also a good incentive to stick with the job, she said.