Village safety a priority for state's new top cop

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2008

The state's new public safety commissioner said bullets whizzed his way just once during his law enforcement career - when he was an 18-year-old village cop in a Northwest Alaska community.

The experience gave Joe Masters Sr., now 44, unique insight into the challenges that village officers are up against, he said just days before a planned visit to that part of the state, where Kotzebue leaders will likely plead for local police support.

Masters, who rose to become a deputy director of the Alaska State Troopers before retiring in 2005, was selected for the commissioner post last month by Gov. Sarah Palin.

He lived in Unalakleet shortly after graduating from high school in 1982 in Unalaska. He spent about a year in the village, population 600 residents at the time.

During the shooting, Masters was driving a truck responding to a call about a drunken man. He found the suspect when he heard two gun shots and spotted the man blasting a rifle from the window of a house.

"He was extremely intoxicated and shooting in the direction of my truck and me," Masters said.

Masters escaped the truck, fled behind a building and called for backup as the man squeezed off more shots. The crisis ended with the man passing out.

That incident and another in the village - a different man leveled a shotgun at Masters during a domestic violence call - were the most dangerous situations Masters has faced in his career.

They left him with no illusions about the rigors of being a village public safety officer, a job some people might mistake as easy because villages are usually quiet.

"They can be in a lethal confrontation as much as any other officer," he said.

The state's Village Public Safety Officer program has made strides in recent months, with interest in the job rising in July after legislators increased starting pay from $16 an hour to $21 an hour, said Capt. Steve Arlow, head of state troopers in Western Alaska.

VPSO numbers have increased for the first time in years, going from 47 officers in April to 53 officers in November, Arlow said. More candidates are undergoing background checks, so the numbers could increase more, he said.

Those increases haven't been seen in villages around Kotzebue, which may have the state's highest vacancy rates.

VPSOs, who receive much of the same training that troopers do and work under their supervision, serve as the highest level of front line law enforcement in the villages. They can't carry guns but they do carry tasers, and they can stabilize dangerous situations until troopers arrive by plane from a post in hub communities such as Kotzebue.

There are only two VPSOs in the 10-village Kotzebue region. Three more state-funded VPSO positions have been allocated to the region but are unfilled in part because few people have applied and background checks have turned up criminal histories, said Sgt. Karl Main of the region's trooper post in Kotzebue.

Past recruiting challenges have involved poor pay and benefits, little support from other officers and awkward social ties in villages, Main said.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, led the effort to increase wages in the Legislature.

His next challenge will be finding money to pay for improved or even new facilities, such as offices for the village public safety officers that include a telephone, fax machine and other equipment.

Masters said he and others in his department are discussing ways to increase training and support for VPSOs beyond the annual weeklong service training they already receive. That might include Web-based conferences with troopers when they can't meet in person.

One solution suggested by former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan would have made the village public safety officers state employees.

Masters said he's not committed to that idea, but said he'll look to improve the program as much as he can within a limited budget.

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