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State bill to reform VPSO program receives glowing testimony from Native groups

Mar 21, 2020

A Village Public Safety Officer vehicle parked in Kotzebue. (Photo by Wesley Early/KOTZ)

A bill that would substantially reform the state’s Village Public Safety Officer Program received public testimony from various Native leaders across the state.

While initially set up with a focus on wildlife management and search and rescue, the Village Public Safety Officer program has evolved over the last few decades as the primary form of law enforcement in rural villages. House Bill 287 was written with recommendations from a legislative working group to update the program to meet current rural public safety needs.

The VPSO program is administered through ten regional nonprofits throughout the state.

Melanie Bahnke with Kawerak Inc., a tribal consortium in the Bering Strait region, testified to the House Tribal Affairs committee that current statutes limit how Native communities can keep their residents safe.

“Flexibility for example to have rotating VPSOs in our region, the ability to direct resources for infrastructure has been hindered,” Bahnke said. “Housing, holding cells… the way the current statute is prohibits the state of Alaska from expending resources on those types of things.”

Like all people who called in or testified in person, Bahnke was in support of the bill, which increases partnerships between the state Public Safety department and VPSOs, as well as updating statutes that are decades old. Joel Jackson with the organized village of Kake believes that high turnover rates and difficulties in hiring new officers are addressed in the new bill.

“I think I saw the report, one out of three villages still don’t have law enforcement and that’s very sad in this day and age,” Jackson said. “So I hope the committee and the working can come to find something that will hopefully bring all police protection to all our villages and the urban areas. Wherever you live, we all should have that.”

VPSOs aren’t the only form of law enforcement in rural villages, but there are concerns for the availability and reliability of alternatives.

While state troopers have jurisdiction in villages, it can sometimes be days before a trooper responds to a call due to their spread out nature. Local village governments can hire village police officers, or VPOs, but felons and sexual offenders technically qualify for those positions, leading to controversy over their use. A bill introduced by Mike Dunleavy, HB 224, would make hiring tribal police officers or “peace officers” with certain criminal backgrounds illegal.

Support for HB 287 outside of testimony has not been universal. There are concerns from the Department of Public Safety and at least one grassroots organization that under the new bill, convicted felons and those charged with domestic violence could also be hired as VPSOs.

Lawmakers addressed some of those concerns in some amendments to the bill that require the Department of Public Safety grant a waiver to convicted felons and they must wait ten years after a conviction to qualify to be a VPSO. The same waiver is required for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Additionally, those with sexual crime convictions are ineligible.

Ken Truitt, a staffer for Rep. Chuck Kopp, helped put the bill together. He says that while those with criminal records could end up qualifying to be VPSOs, it’s up to the discretion of tribal entities to hire them.

“The statute doesn’t say that an organization must hire somebody,” Truitt said. “It just says that they can consider somebody with those types of backgrounds.”

Kopp noted that many concerns over background are coming from communities with well-staffed public safety options.

“It’s very easy for us to sit home safely in our beds in a city and moralize about how public safety should be provided in communities where no trooper or police officer would ever serve,” Kopp said. “So I just wanted to put on the record that we need to recognize that some flexibility must be granted to improve public safety in rural Alaska.”

After public testimony, HB 287 was moved out of the House Tribal Affairs committee to the House Judiciary committee.