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Arming Alaska's rural VPSOs would increase village danger threat, some troopers say

Dermot Cole
Loren Holmes photo

Many legislators like the idea of arming Alaska's Village Public Safety Officers because it comes with a minimal price tag for ammunition, firearms and travel.

The state says that the annual cost of training 20 VPSOs for a week in Sitka would be $35,000 for travel, $10,000 for liability insurance and $17,600 for handguns, holsters and ammunition.

“There are some costs, I think they’re minimal,” Terry Vrabec, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

The state is planning to adopt regulations by May 1 to allow village officers to carry firearms while performing their duties. The drive to allow VPSOs to carry guns was renewed last year after the shooting death of 54-year-old officer Thomas Madole in Manokotak.

The officers handle a variety of situations, from search-and-rescue cases to crime response, armed with pepper spray, stun guns and handcuffs. They are encountering more violent situations all the time.

The state budget was presented with a bill showing a cost of $62,600 a year for the next five years, by which time 100 officers will practice shooting at the Sitka academy.

But the real cost of arming VPSOs is not found in simply adding up how many $410 handguns and $170 holsters are needed and training them for five days, several Alaska State Troopers testified on Tuesday before the House Community & Regional Affairs Committee.

Potential lawsuits

Trooper Sgt. Jess Carson, who has been an officer almost 11 years, said that if the state authorizes VPSOs to be armed with minimal training, expect costly civil lawsuits if someone gets shot. Carson said the decision to arm the safety officers, who are private employees of Native social service organizations with funding from the state, is the same as making them police officers, though they have not been trained as nor are qualified to be police officers.

“Training is a huge factor when people are considering civil liability. State troopers and the state will be providing that training, which is a huge target area in these civil lawsuits,” he said.

Carson said VPSOs do not go through the trooper academy or receive the level of training that would make them qualified to handle firearms in confrontations.

“Simply by providing them some training on how to shoot a gun does not make them a police officer. It doesn’t allow them the skills, the physical capabilities to retain that weapon, to make the proper choices of when to shoot, not to shoot,” he said.

“This all starts with the selection process of becoming an officer. It’s not a two-week training process that certifies us to take another person’s life. It starts with our background checks. It starts with our polygraphs. It starts with our psych tests.

“It goes from experienced officers talking to us and determining that we have the mental capacity and the physical capacity to make these choices and do this job. Only when you get through all that do you get to go to the academy,” he said.

Once at the academy, the dropout rate is high because of the mental, physical and emotional difficulty. Carson said troopers are regularly placed in situations where they think they may have to shoot someone. “And it turns out that that person wasn’t presenting a danger to us," he said. "Any less training would have killed an innocent citizen."

“I fear that that’s what’s going to happen when we start arming people” who are not sufficiently trained, he said.

VPSOs get 600 hours training

Trooper Anne Sears, who has been an officer 13 years, said judgment about the use of force is not something that can be learned without extensive training and experience. She said that whenever she goes to a serious call, she has the benefit of knowing that she can trust the judgment of other officers on the scene.

Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the public safety employees union and the former Anchorage School Board president, challenged the idea of arming VPSOs without setting high standards for training and background checks. He said lawmakers should look at having state employees do law enforcement in the villages and that they receive more training and supervision.

For the most part, lawmakers didn't want to hear about spending more money or raising standards. Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold wanted to know how much it costs to train a trooper and how much it would cost in salary for 20 years compared to a VPSO. "Is there proven outcomes for everywhere there's a trooper in this state, that there's a decrease in crime?" she asked. She noted that in Anchorage, where the largest force of troopers work, the "crime rates have not exactly been decreasing."

Vrabec, the deputy commissioner, said greater law enforcement has an impact throughout the state. He said it costs much more to train a trooper than a VPSO. The current VPSO academy includes more than 600 hours of training, while trooper training is more than 900 hours. Not all police departments provide the same level of training. He said the cost per officer would be hundreds of thousands of dollars more for a trooper over a 20-year period than for a VPSO.

'Law enforcement on the cheap'

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, sponsor of the bill, said he hopes that future budgets allow the current staffing level of the troopers to be maintained. But he said the bill “is about providing more tools for law enforcement as a whole out in the 220-some odd communities that we have stretched across the state.”

Responding to Metcalfe, Edgmon said that referring to VPSOs as corporate employees who are “not certified,” comes across as “awfully pejorative.” Metcalfe answered that more training and police certification are needed, adding there is no reason why “we can’t put VPSOs under the same regulations that municipal and state police are under.”

Robert Claus, who was an oversight trooper of VPSOs for 18 years, wrote in an email that many of the VPSOs he worked with could not have met the basic requirements to become police officers.

“The VPSO program is trying to do law enforcement on the cheap in the villages, providing a level of service that would be unacceptable anywhere else in Alaska by people who are unqualified to work anywhere else in Alaska,” he said. “Arming them adds to the discrimination problem of disparate services by race and region. It does not resolve that problem. If people want professional level police services in rural AK, hire more troopers. If not, we end up with a race-to-the-bottom, creating a sub-class of police officers for the villages alone.”

The retired trooper said that with armed VPSOs, every conflict would be an armed conflict.

“Every fight becomes a gunfight because they brought the gun. I believe that will increase the numbers of shootings in the villages, not decrease them,” Claus said.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.