Senators hope new bill can keep public safety officers in rural Alaska

YK Delta VPSOs spoke with DPS officials about the process of arming VPSOs during training in Bethel. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)
Village public safety officers in Yukon-Delta Kuskokwim during training in Bethel in 2015. At the peak of the VPSO program, there were 113 officers. Now there are 51, according to the program director. (Photo by Ben Matheson/KYUK)

A new public safety bill is making its way through the Alaska Legislature. The bill’s authors want to improve village public safety officer retention in Alaska.

The Alaska VPSO Program was created to help tribal communities hire local public safety officers. VPSOs are more highly trained than tribal police officers or village police officers. They require background checks and training on par with Alaska State Troopers.

But the program has been on the decline. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta alone, the program has shrunk by about 90%. 

According to Joel Hard, the director of the state’s VPSO program, there were once over 30 VPSOs in the region. Now there are four. This creates a big public safety gap in the region. Only eight villages have either a VPSO or Alaska State Trooper post. Hard said that the problem with the program isn’t with hiring new officers, it’s with retaining them. The program has not only shrunk in the Y-K Delta but statewide.

“At the peak of the program, we had 113 officers. And today, we have 51,” Hard said.

That peak was in 2014. The new bill was created to help reverse those numbers. It’s currently in the Senate Finance Committee.

The committee members have two ideas why the retention is so poor: the pay is too low and the working conditions are tough.

“We all recognize that when you’re an officer in a small community or village, it’s a very difficult job. It’s your friends, your relatives, your neighbors, you know, the people that you have to go knock on the door and deal with it personally,” said committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman from Sitka.

Village public safety officers are hired by regional tribal nonprofits but paid for by the state. In the Y-K Delta, that nonprofit is the Association of Village Council Presidents.

Another committee member, Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman, added that the way the state’s funding rules are now, the tribal nonprofits don’t have enough leeway to improve the working conditions for their VPSOs.

“That doesn’t give the grantees the flexibility to increase salaries or to provide housing,” Hoffman said.

This bill would grant that flexibility. It would allow the regional tribal nonprofits, which manage the VPSO programs, more space to spend their funds as they see fit. They would be able to increase the starting salary for an officer if they wanted, have more than one officer per village, and hire roving officers who could travel between villages.

Former VPSO Ben Beaver Sr. worked in Atmautluak, Akiak, Napakiak and St. Mary’s. He said that it’s helpful for crime prevention when a community has a locally hired VPSO.

“They know more about culture — our culture,” Beaver Sr said.

Beaver Sr. said that when he made an arrest, he would often sit the person down and talk to them about why what they did was wrong. He said that’s a crucial part of Yup’ik culture and can help prevent crime in the future.

The bill does not fund new VPSO positions. But if the governor’s proposed budget passes as is, the state would fund 10 more VPSO positions. And according to an AVCP spokesperson, the state promised to fund all the positions that AVCP can fill.

There is a mirror version of the Senate’s VPSO bill that is currently in the House Committee for Tribal Affairs. The bill must make it out of committee before it can be voted on in the House and Senate floors.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included a photo of village police officers, not village public safety officers. Village police officers are not as highly trained as village public safety officers.

KYUK - Bethel

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