JUNEAU -- Prompted by last year's killing of an unarmed village public safety officer in Manokotak, the state will soon allow the Native associations that employ the officers to allow them to carry handguns.
After the death of VPSO Thomas Madole, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, asked the Alaska Legislature to expand the powers of VPSOs. His bill was passed unanimously by the Legislature and signed into law Friday in Naknek by Gov. Sean Parnell.
VPSOs currently are armed with a baton, Taser, handcuffs and protective vest but are not allowed to carry firearms. Former Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters, himself a former VPSO, told legislators that they regularly face assaults, and are sometimes threatened with firearms, as they do their jobs.
Edgmon said the state needs to do what it can to make the VPSO program more effective.
"I want for VPSOs to have every tool they feel they need to carry out their duty as law enforcement officers," Edgmon said. "For those villages that do make this choice, my hope is that the deterrent effect will make not only the VPSO but also the whole community safer."
During bill testimony, concerns were raised about VPSO training and selection, which is less rigorous than that for Alaska state troopers, who also provide rural law enforcement.
Native associations that elect to have their VPSOs carry firearms will send them to the state Public Safety Academy in Sitka, where they will receive firearms training equivalent to that of other law enforcement officers, state officials said.
But Trooper Sgt. Jess Carson told legislators during bill debate that "simply providing firearm training doesn't make VPSOs police officers, as it doesn't provide the physical capabilities to retain the weapon and make the proper choice regarding when and when not to shoot."
Police officers' greatest responsibility is the ability to take lives, he said.
In signing Edgmon's bill Friday, Parnell said the change would make rural Alaska safer.
"This bill is about improving the safety of Alaskans and ensuring our VPSOs have the necessary resources," Parnell said.
The bill was endorsed by the Bristol Bay Native Association, which provides VPSO services in the area and which employed Madole.
The estimated cost in the bill for providing firearms and training at the academy, as well as travel and liability insurance, is $62,000 annually for 20 VPSOs per year.
The bill will take effect in 90 days but it is uncertain when armed VPSOs may show up in communities.