VPSO recruits difficult to find, troopers report

GOALS: State hopes to have officer in any village that wants one.

Fairbanks Daily News-MinerJanuary 16, 2012 

FAIRBANKS -- The money and the political support will exist to expand the number of village public safety officers to every Alaska village that wants one by 2019, but it has taken time to find qualified candidates for the remote posts.

VPSOs work with Alaska State Troopers, but they wear brown uniforms instead of blue and only occasionally the troopers' characteristic Stetson hat.

Professionally, they wear four hats: peace officer, fire chief, wilderness search and rescue leader and medic. They do not carry service firearms but do have the authority to make arrests.

The year 2011 was the third year of a 10-year program to add 15 VPSO positions every year. It's a central part of Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" campaign to reduce Alaska's high domestic violence rates.

The program was slow to find applicants for newly created positions in its first year, adding only six new officers during the course of 2010.

"It's not for the lack of trying," said Sgt. Leonard Wallner, who manages the VPSO program statewide. "It's about finding people who can pass the background check and go thorough the rigors of a 10-week police academy. It's not an easy undertaking."

2011 was a better year for recruitment, with at least 15 positions filled by the end of the year.

The class of 2012 of VPSO training program began its third of 10 weeks Monday at the Department of Public Safety Academy in Sitka. The pipeline of new candidates attending the academy has expanded significantly every year in the past four, going from 19 in 2008 to 38 this year, Wallner said.

Regional Native nonprofit corporations manage the VPSO program in most of the state. For the Interior, the work is contracted to the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference.

If you include candidates for Northway and Tetlin at the VPSO academy, there are eight VPSOs in the region, said TCC public safety director Jim Knopke. Also covered are the villages of Ruby, Huslia, Arctic Village, Beaver, Tanana and Eagle.

The goal is to expand to 24 Interior VPSOs within the first half of the project, he said. Now in the works are the villages of Allakaket, Yukon Flats and Nenana.

For comparison, about 20 troopers patrol the Bush and rural highway areas of the same region.

Knopke said recruitment dropped about six or seven years ago and has begun to improve over the past two years. Law enforcement has nationally followed a similar pattern, and he attributes it to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"A lot of applicants that we'd normally see are in the military instead," he said.

VPSOs on the job are also staying longer, a dramatic improvement during the past 10 years. Knopke attributed the better retention to higher salaries and better infrastructure for VPSOs to use.

Pay starts at $22,630 for a new VPSO in his first six months, but a VPSO who stays on the job receives regular annual raises, he said.

There's also plenty of potential for advancement. Current Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Joseph A. Masters started his career as a village public safety officer, Knopke said.

In general, Knopke said, TCC "champions" trying to recruit candidates from within a village or within the region where he or she will be serving. But some candidates from outside the region or even the state make good VPSOs. One example, he said, is Huslia VPSO Cpl. Tim Pavlick, who is from Allentown, Pa., but has won the support of his adopted community.

Pavlick met a woman from Huslia when he was in the Army and stationed at Fort Wainwright.

They got married and moved to Huslia, where Pavlick has now been VPSO for 10 years.

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