BETHEL — When violence erupts in a village, they arrive with Tasers but no gun. They listen when children tell of being molested. They put out fires and search for stranded travelers, retrieve bodies under ice and help the injured when four-wheelers crash.
There's no other law enforcement in the country quite like Alaska's village public safety officers. Tribal leaders and state troopers say they provide vital security and more in small, isolated rural communities.
Yet their numbers have dropped by half in three years. Their employers — nonprofit organizations and one borough government – struggle to recruit officers. And some of the officers themselves are growing frustrated with a long lag in enactment of a 2014 law intended to allow selected VPSOs to, for the first time, carry firearms on the job.
Can this unique Alaska way of public safety thrive in a climate of intensified scrutiny and criticism, when police forces big and small around the country can't find willing, qualified and suitable officers?
"Obviously we don't have enough and we need to recruit more," Walt Monegan, Alaska public safety commissioner, said in a recent interview.
Three years ago, 101 VPSOs were working in Alaska. The count last week? 53, said AST Capt. Andrew Merrill, who oversees the VPSO program for the Alaska State Troopers.
"The program is evolving and rapidly changing," Merrill told a state House legislative panel Thursday.
Tough climate for police forces
The hiring falls mainly to the employers, nine Alaska Native nonprofit organizations and the Northwest Arctic Borough. The state is their partner, training the officers and paying costs of a VPSO budget topping $13 million this year.
In all this year, the state has 78 approved VPSO slots, of which one-third are empty. Counting supplies, equipment and indirect costs, each position costs nearly $184,000 a year.
Some VPSOs get free housing; others pay a fee or live in their own home. It varies by community and officer, Merrill said.
Those involved say they are working to strengthen the program.
A tribal caucus group includes VPSO coordinators, leaders of the grantee organizations and Merrill's office. A recruitment committee is in place.
Standards for new hires have been toughened along with the extra requirements for those who want to be armed. That is intended to ensure the best-trained, best-equipped officers in the field, Monegan said.
It also adds to the difficulty in finding qualified candidates willing to live in a small Bush village, and leave home and family for weeks of training.
"Perfection is not a bad standard," Monegan said. "It's just a tough one to achieve."
Recruitment became more challenging for police forces across the country after a series of shooting deaths by officers.
"Ever since Ferguson, really," Monegan said, referring to the 2014 death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, and the eruption of protests afterwards. Authorities concluded they did not have grounds for criminal charges against the officer. But the national consciousness imprinted on police as too-quick-to-shoot.
"The department is just trying to find good qualified people that are willing to step up and handle all the problems that police normally have to handle as well as the public perception of the moment. That is the add-on," Monegan said.
None yet carry guns
The VPSO program has changed from its beginning in 1979, Merrill said. VPSOs originally were seen as public safety conduits, helping local search and rescue groups, assisting volunteer firefighters, securing major crime scenes and handling minor crimes.
They used to be the law enforcement equivalent of community health aides and weren't expected to perform like troopers, just as health aides aren't doctors.
But as their work increasingly focused on law enforcement, communities expected them to be everything a trooper was, Merrill said. And the state is effectively nudging them along, with the tougher standards.
A VPSO new to law enforcement now starts out at more than $25 an hour, just under the $26.50 for a trooper recruit, according to Merrill.
Sometimes, VPSOs work in their home communities or region, but many find it challenging to do so. They may have to arrest their cousin, a brother or an old flame. About 20 of the current group are Alaska Native, according to troopers.
The biggest recent change came in 2014 when now-House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, sponsored a bill to allow VPSOs to carry firearms. He pushed for it after the shooting deaths of two VPSOs in his Bristol Bay region, one in Manokotak in 2013 and the other in South Naknek in 1986.
Thomas Madole, the Manokotak VPSO, had just knocked on the door of an agitated man who was reported to be suicidal when the man fired at him. In South Naknek, Ronald Zimin was responding to a disturbance.
At this point, not a single VPSO is armed. Of the five experienced officers who completed the requirements — an extra 21-day weapons training, physical fitness test, fresh background check and psychological assessment — just one remains on duty.
"A way to get myself out"
James Kvamme, a traveling VPSO based in the Kuskokwim River village of Aniak, where he grew up, completed all that last spring. Yet, he is still awaiting the go-ahead.
"It's not going to change how I do my job day in and day out," he said. He already carries pepper spray, a Taser and a baton. But there's an empty spot for his new holster and the Glock pistol, still in the gun locker.
He has had to take guns from armed, agitated suspects a few times.
"It's just going to give me that security. Hey, if somebody starts shooting at me at a house, and they back me up in a corner, I've got a way to get myself out and get back home to my family," Kvamme said. He and his soon-to-be wife have six children between them.
Two other VPSOs carried weapons briefly before leaving their jobs. Then the nonprofits that employ VPSOs put a hold on any more.
The organizations say they are working with the state to develop policies and agreements for the new, potentially risky element to be added to Alaska's unique village law enforcement.
"Arming is one piece of the whole puzzle of the VPSO program," said Liz Pederson, general counsel for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents. "The Legislature said you can do, this but there is no model for how you can do it. There is no other place where you can look where there are nonprofits running police forces."
Among the issues are liability, or who will pay, in the event of a lawsuit. The state provides $2 million in liability coverage for each VPSO organization, Merrill told legislators. But what if damage claims exceed that?
Other issues include a process for investigating any officer-involved shootings when the employer is not a government agency.
If a city police officer shoots someone, troopers investigate under long-established written protocols, Pederson said. Officers have protections. Their union locals provide a lawyer.
With, at most, only one VPSO in many villages, who would maintain order during what is likely to be a charged situation? Who would work to ease the psychological trauma on a village?
At Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Native nonprofit for the Interior, two VPSOs who went through the training have left, one to become a University of Alaska Fairbanks campus police officer, and the other to work for Doyon Security.
The policy reviews continue.
"We wanted to be sure we thoroughly vetted the concept," said Will Mayo, the former conference president and now its director of tribal government and client services.
Edgmon, the legislator who pushed for arming, said he figured it would happen slowly, just not this slow.
"What we need are a few success stories," he said.
Arming seemed like a solution. The reality, said AVCP chief executive Vivian Korthuis, "is more complicated."
Recruiting for village jobs
Communities are clamoring for VPSOs and Native nonprofits are looking for new ways to find potential recruits and help them sign up.
The rate of reported crime is far higher in some small villages than urban areas such as Anchorage, Merrill told legislators. Domestic assault, sexual abuse and criminal mischief in the form of vandalism are all serious problems.
Yet some of those villages have no law enforcement officer, not a VPSO, nor tribal police or a city force, if there is an organized town government.
"We have a very high need for public safety," Korthuis said. "But we have a very small number of assigned VPSOs."
The Southwest region with 48 scattered villages including the Bethel hub has 14 state-funded slots for VPSOs, of which 10 are filled. Candidates for another two are going through the hiring process, AVCP says.
Almost every week, villages without a resident VPSO call AVCP and ask for one to be assigned temporarily or to come for a special event, Korthuis said.
"We have communities that have not received VPSOs for years and are still asking for VPSOs," she said. "Anyway you look at it, the need is there. The need is very large."
Quinhagak, a village near the Bering Sea southwest of Bethel, had two VPSOs but both left on their own after the City Council voted in 2015 to terminate them. As it turned out, the council didn't have the authority to do that, said Jerilyn Kelly, who is now the mayor.
At the time, she was a member of the council, but wasn't present when it voted to fire the officers. The community is still working on a new agreement with AVCP to regain a VPSO.
"We were a fortunate community because we had not only one, but two VPSOs," Kelly said. She wants community leaders to understand the limits of their authority.
AVCP is stepping up its recruitment and is hoping to get more locals to sign up. It is opening job centers in 16 villages with more planned.
An AVCP worker will help locals get through the lengthy application form. The association's VPSO coordinator will travel to villages on a recruitment drive, AVCP leaders said.
The Tanana Chiefs region also has 14 slots, of which seven were filled as of the last report, according to Mayo.
TCC already has had intensive recruitment, with posters, rural television ads and queries on national recruitment sites, Mayo said.
The work is led by Sgt. Jody Potts, who grew up in Eagle Village and directs the Tanana Chiefs' VPSO program. At the Alaska Federation of Native's convention in Fairbanks last October, she spoke about the strength of communities dealing with crime – and of the dedication of VPSOs.
A video played, showing officers in the field on boats and snowmachines, four-wheelers and SUVs.
"I want to briefly recognize our warriors of today, those officers that are out there in our villages working unarmed, alone in their villages with no backup. These officers –"
The crowd was on its feet, applauding, cheering, whistling. Someone cranked up the video's rock soundtrack. She paused onstage as the applause grew loud.
"These officers do probably the toughest job in the state of Alaska. And they do this job with a lot less resources and assistance than a lot of other agencies in the state."
New hires now go through the same 15-week basic academy in Sitka as city police and trooper recruits, up from an earlier recruitment of 10 weeks often split into multiple sessions with part of the training in Bethel. On top of that, they must take two weeks of firefighting training and a week of medical training.
They also must pass a physical test that includes pushups, situps and running, which those wanting to be armed also had to complete. Some veteran VPSOs couldn't pass.
The old, phased training approach may have worked better for rural residents who can't leave for three months, state Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel, said Thursday at the House public safety budget subcommittee meeting. Many have essential roles at home cutting wood, hauling water, and hunting and fishing to fill freezers and smokehouses, he said.
Candidates also now must pass criminal background checks without leeway. Before, employers could ask a trooper commander for approval to bring on a candidate with a recent minor crime. Those waivers are no longer allowed.
State Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, asked Merrill whether the state might allow someone in the community to do some VPSO tasks even if they can't meet all the standards.
"Because if these numbers keep dropping, then you have absolutely nobody, which I know is not what you want," Wilson said. "So have you looked at the possibility with someone with less training because they just don't want to go through the whole program, but they would still be better than having no one?"
The push has been in the other direction.
"The challenge is we are talking about cops," Merrill responded.
One idea being circulated would make VPSOs state employees.
"I've heard from several VPSOs who are concerned that this may be a way to perhaps fundamentally alter the program or possibly look to eliminate it," Fansler, the new Bethel representative, said.
He asked Merrill to address that issue in a follow-up report.
"Troopers in rural and Western Alaska could not do what we do without the VPSOs," Merrill said in an interview before that hearing. "They are that quintessential community-oriented police officer."