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Rural Alaskans weigh in on the question of whether to arm VPSOs

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

The Department of Public Safety wants to hear from you. In a release issued last week, the department sought public comments on the issue of arming Village Public Safety Officers in the Alaska's smallest communities.

The changes to the current regulations would allow VPSOs to carry guns on duty, and change the way officers qualify for the job. Currently, VPSOs -- there are more than 100 in Alaska -- are unarmed peace officers employed by Native corporations with state funding for salaries and benefits.

“(VPSOs) are people with families, too, and they need protection because they do it for us,” said Noorvik’s Delores Field. “I love the idea.”

“Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it,” said ex-trooper Lorry Schuerch, who owns a lodge in Kiana. “If a village (officer) is hired and you strap a .357 magnum on him, with no training and no background check, we’re lighting a fuse on a stick of dynamite,” Schuerch said. “But if he went to a trooper academy and went through the same kind of training, then heck yes, they should be armed. But they need the proper training.”

Schuerch spent several years as an Alaska State Trooper in Barrow and in Fairbanks, becoming one of the first Alaska Native officers on the force, he said. But fighting crime in Alaska’s larger communities wasn’t for him and so he returned to Kiana, his hometown, to run the fishing lodge with his wife, Nellie.

During his time on the force, he worked closely with village peace officers.

And he couldn’t imagine walking into some of the situations he faced with no sidearm for protection, he said.

“Some of my experiences with domestic violence and intoxicated individuals going nuts … it’s not safe,” Schuerch said. “You’re walking into these situations and it can be scary.”

And while it could be argued that more armed officers in the villages could perhaps provoke more gun violence, Schuerch said he didn’t think that would be the case. Suspects would probably think twice about pulling a weapon if they knew the VPSO was armed, he said.

VPSOs are part of the community -- hunting, fishing and shopping along with other residents. And many officers grew up in the regions they serve, Schuerch added. “But he’s still putting himself in danger.”

The most recent move to arm officers began in the spring following the shooting of 54-year-old officer Thomas O. Madole, who died while serving the village of Manokotak. After the tragic incident, Madole’s wife Luanne told Alaska lawmakers that her husband was aware of his disadvantage when entering into dangerous situations. “Every time he went out on a call, he always wondered if it would be his last,” Luanne Madole said at the time. “He went to serve and protect a village and had no means of adequately protecting himself.”

Before Madole's death, a VPSO had not been killed in the line of duty since 1986. The rule that excludes a VPSO from carrying a gun has been in effect since 1995.

The proposed changes state that VPSOs would be allowed, at the discretion of their employers, to carry firearms after receiving basic firearms training.

Schuerch stressed that extensive training should be the top priority.

“Before we (arm) our boys in brown, they do need training and then give them a firearm,” he said, adding the background checks for past criminal behavior, mental health issues and alcohol/drug use is also a must. Because public safety officers work on a smaller scale in a more confined area, and rely on Alaska State Troopers to assist with larger cases, Schuerch  thinks the pay for VPSOs should remain about what it is currently.

Naknek resident Lynn Peters, who was raised in Kotzebue, echoed the sentiments that arming local public safety officers would make community residents feel safer. But, she noted, there are dishonest people in every profession.

“For as much violence that happens in the smaller communities, I believe that the VPSO should be able to carry some kind of protection especially when the villagers are intoxicated and start waving their weapons, shooting at random items/people,” Peters said. “I don’t know if it will make residents safe, but it will make them feel more safe knowing an officer of peace is protecting them.”

Alaskans are encouraged to review the public notice relating to proposed changes. Public comment is open until 4:30 p.m. Jan. 17, 2014. This website will bring you to the proposed regulation changes and also explain how you can submit comments online.

After the comment period ends, the Department of Public Safety will either adopt the proposed regulation changes without further notice or decide to take no action.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.