As COVID-19 restrictions lift, Northwest Arctic Borough renews push to get VPSOs in every village

Aucha Kameroff, Director of Public Safety for the Northwest Arctic Borough. (Wesley Early, KOTZ)

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifting in the Northwest Arctic Borough, local public safety officials are continuing their push to get Village Public Safety Officers in more communities.

When Aucha Kameroff took over as head of public safety for the Northwest Arctic Borough at the start of last year, there were no Village Public Safety Officers in any of the borough’s 10 village communities. Kameroff says a lack of public safety is a problem in many rural Alaska communities, and getting VPSOs in the Northwest Arctic was her first priority.

“I want our communities to be with law enforcement in all communities,” Kameroff said. “I don’t care if you’re in Emmonak, or if you’re in Allakaket, or in Anaktuvuk Pass, and in our region, Kivalina, Buckland — all those villages, we need law enforcement.”

Though the pandemic slowed down how quickly she could fill the VPSO jobs, she and the borough have still made major progress in hiring.

“We have a VPSO coordinator and five VPSOs,” Kameroff said.

Kameroff would have to hire five more VPSOs to meet her goal of having one in each village. Once those officers are hired, another priority is getting them up to speed on Inupiaq culture. Most of the officers are from the Lower 48, so they first come to Kotzebue to meet the borough officials before heading to villages for field training.

“When we had them in Anchorage for a long time, I had them study the Northwest Arctic Borough website,” Kameroff said. “I had them study all the villages, their history and the type of people that live up here and the different cultures of the state of Alaska. Because they’re coming from New York or Arkansas or Arizona, and they have no idea.”

Kameroff says getting officers through the application process can be lengthy. It normally takes about three months to make a hire. Kameroff says she understands village leaders’ continued push for public safety.

“You know, people want something, like all of us, they want something right now,” Kameroff said. “But it takes a while to get to the right now. The process to get to the hiring is one process. The training is another process.”

The officers train through the VPSO academy in Sitka. The next 16-week academy starts at the end of July. This week, Kameroff says a VPSO for the region is graduating from the academy.

“We placed him for the village of Shungnak,” Kameroff said. “He’d done some work there last year and was there some last summer.”

Currently VPSOs work in two-week shifts, rotating between their homes and the villages they serve. It’s a similar model to how the Kotzebue Police Department operates. Kameroff says it isn’t ideal. She’d prefer having officers live in the region. However, she says, that hasn’t been practical.

“When we first started, or I started, in this position it was very hard to hire folks,” Kameroff said. “So we had to find a way to entice people to come onboard, and two weeks on, two weeks off schedule was the way to do it.”

Kameroff says the next step in expanding VPSO coverage in the region is making sure that the village communities have the infrastructure to support an officer.

“Meaning an office location, a holding cell,” Kameroff said. “You also have to have a living unit. You know, we’re not going to be working 24 hours a day, 365, you know.”

She says the borough is working with communities to provide grants and other means for getting public safety buildings in all of the villages. Now that COVID-19 is becoming less of an issue, she is planning more meetings in-person with village leaders to gauge their public safety needs moving forward.

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