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Lawless

Gov. Dunleavy proposes bill to prevent criminals from working as Alaska village police officers

  • Author: Kyle Hopkins
  • Updated: January 28
  • Published January 28

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska.

The Mountain Village police department office on June 27, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing changes to state law that would improve police hiring standards and oversight after some villages hired police officers that were sex offenders or had been convicted of domestic violence.

The proposed legislation, introduced Monday, is intended to deter communities from appointing unqualified people as VPOs and to deter people with certain convictions from applying for the jobs, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

An investigation published in July by the Daily News and ProPublica found some 34 VPOs had been hired by at least 14 cities despite criminal convictions that would make them ineligible to work as officers or even private security guards most anywhere else in the United States.

In the Norton Sound village of Stebbins, for example, the entire seven-man police force had been convicted of domestic violence. (Dunleavy has also said that Stebbins and neighboring St. Michael will receive a state trooper this year.)

The twin bills requested by Dunleavy, HB 224 and SB 164, would amend Alaska law to:

• Forbid anyone convicted of a felony, sex offense or domestic violence crime from working as a VPO.

• Allow the state to prosecute an unqualified VPO — meaning someone who has been convicted of barrier crimes but is working as a VPO anyway — for the crime of impersonating a public safety officer.

• Clarify that the Alaska Police Standards Council, a state regulatory board, has authority to set hiring and certification standards for VPOs and may investigate officers who do not meet those standards.

• Require VPOs to undergo 12 hours of domestic violence training and 12 hours of sexual assault training.

It’s unclear how the new legislation would solve certain problems, such as the difficulty of enforcing VPO hiring and training requirements across the vast state. State regulations already describe minimum qualifications for VPOs, but those requirements have often been ignored.

“This amendment is meant to clarify that people with convictions of domestic violence related crimes, sex offenses and felonies are not, by state law, peace officers,” Peters said in a statement. “If a person that doesn’t meet the requirements is hired by a community, and then takes enforcement action — trained or not — then that person cannot use being a VPO as a defense to impersonating a peace officer.”

There are several different types of law enforcement in rural Alaska, each with different hiring and training requirements. Troopers are the best trained and best paid, working directly for the state Department of Public Safety and deployed to villages and hub cities. Village public safety officers, or VPSOs, receive similar initial training to that of troopers and are employed by regional nonprofits or boroughs.

VPOs work directly for city governments in communities that cannot be reached by road. In some villages, they are the only local form of law enforcement, but the state has historically failed to track the identities of these officers.

The bill incorporates recommendations from the Alaska Police Standards Council, which has been contacting every village city government to determine how many communities employ VPOs and the identities of those officers.

As of December the board had identified 51 officers, most of whom were previously unknown to the state, meaning they were never properly vetted by regulators. It is unclear how many of those had criminal histories.

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica are spending 2019 and 2020 investigating sexual violence across Alaska. Read the full series here.

• Reach out to the reporting team anytime: alaska@propublica.org

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