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Crime & Courts

A broken system of oversight for Alaska’s village police officers

(Bill Roth / ADN archive)

The number of state-trained village public safety officers is shrinking in Alaska, leaving more loosely regulated village police officers as the only law in some communities.

The last time anyone tried to determine the number of VPOs and tribal police officers — officers working directly for the tribal government in a village — was in 2012. At the time, there were 49 villages employing a total of 125 village police officers or tribal officers.

Here is how the hiring and training process is supposed to work for this first line of protection for Alaska's most remote villages, according to the law.

1. A city government hires a village police officer (VPO) and, within 30 days of the hire, notifies the Alaska Police Standards Council. (Note that a VPO is different from a VPSO, or village public safety officer, a job that requires more training.)

2. A background check is performed by the city or state to ensure the officer has no felony convictions within the past 10 years.

3. Within a year of being hired, the officer must complete 48 hours of training in order to be certified by the state and continue wearing a badge in his or her village.

But what's actually happening is that only a handful of communities have told the state the names of new police officer hires. The state regulation that requires cities to do so has no penalty for noncompliance. At most, the state can refuse to facilitate training for the village police officer, but it cannot forbid a city government from hiring the officer.

"A lot of times in the villages it's, 'Who is willing to do it and who is available?' "  said Capt. Andrew Merrill, who oversees the village public safety officer program for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

Like VPSOs, village police officers are an essential part of public safety in Alaska, he said.

"I've worked with VPOs who make a huge difference in their communities," said Merrill, who has encountered village police officers who work for free out of concern for their hometowns.

The police standards council – charged with removing bad cops from the job – does not know the names of most village police officers, let alone whether they have criminal histories.

"I have no idea how many (VPOs) there are," said Bob Griffiths, the police standards council executive director. "And the reason is there is widespread non-compliance with the requirement that they notify us when they are hired and that we help get them trained."

Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said a commission championed by former Sen. Ted Stevens concluded village police officers, VPSOs and Alaska State Troopers should all fall under a single statewide training and certification program.

That solution could create a framework for VPOs to receive state oversight as well as to rise through the ranks of Alaska law enforcement as they received more and more training. But the idea was never implemented, he said.

Ultimately, each village must decide who it is willing to give a badge, said Monegan, who was the first Alaska Native to hold the state's top law enforcement position.

"If you can kind of visualize the old West. Some of the old-town sheriffs and deputies they would hire were probably guys that spend as much time behind (jail) bars as in front of them," Monegan said.

"Eventually the community elected what they wanted to have. Many of our communities are still kind of in that transition," he said.

Kiana Village Police Officer Annie Reed worked as a health aide in the village before a family member recruited her to become a police officer. The job has no health insurance, she said. She works alone in dangerous situations.

"It is stressful. I deal with a lot of DVs (domestic violence calls), assaults. I've done quite a few lockdowns," she said.

Reed's rap sheet isn't perfect. In the past six years she has pleaded guilty to a couple of misdemeanors. In larger Alaska cities, that would preclude her from working as a police officer. But state regulations allow for leniency in village police officer hires — misdemeanor convictions are considered on a case-by-case basis.

"These are people with good intentions and maybe less-than-stellar backgrounds, but they really believe in what they are trying to do," Monegan said.

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