The Arctic Sounder

The Northwest Arctic Borough is the first Alaska region in years to arm a VPSO

For the first time in nearly a decade, a Village Public Safety Officer has started carrying a firearm on the job in rural Alaska.

The Northwest Arctic Borough armed one of its VPSOs in April, which no other organization has done since 2015. By the end of summer, the borough plans to arm the rest of its officers and form the first fully armed VPSO program in the state, said Chris Hatch, the borough’s director of public safety.

Arming VPSOs became legal in Alaska in 2014. However, with a few exceptions, regional organizations have been hesitant to make their officers carry firearms, said James Hoelscher, director of the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s Village Public Safety Officer Division. Concerns about the lack of training for VPSOs and liability issues were some of the main reasons why almost no VPSO officers have been armed, Hoelscher said.

The borough spent the past year making the vetting and training process for VPSOs more rigorous before the changes rolled out, Hatch said.

Ultimately, the main goal of arming the officers is to make their job safer and help them better protect communities. The idea seems to sit well with many of the residents.

“I think it’s time for them to take that next step because it’s so critical for the safety of the officers first and then the safety of the people within the villages,” said Adeline “Aucha” Kameroff, a Kotzebue resident and former public safety director of the Northwest Arctic Borough who has worked in the criminal justice field for 30 years. “Any officer, no matter where they are, VPSO or not, should be armed.”

Evolution of the program

The VPSO program was created around 1979 to decrease the response time to emergencies in remote communities, according to the Department of Public Safety’s website. Initially, VPSOs protected crime scenes, assisted victims and had limited policing powers, Hoelscher said. With time, the program was adjusted to communities’ needs, he said.


Now, VPSOs provide emergency medical services, search and rescue operations, fire prevention and community policing, which includes response to crimes such as domestic violence, drinking while driving and sexual assaults.

“Each community can tailor their public safety to their needs,” Hoelscher said.

There are 75 VPSOs across the state, and the Alaska Legislature funded about 10 more positions in the 2025 budget, Hoelscher said. While the VPSO program is state-funded, officers are hired and directed by 10 regional organizations — nine Native nonprofit corporations and the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Working as a VPSO in smaller communities often means that an officer belongs to the local culture and has ties to residents. Their role also extends beyond regular work hours because people always view them as VPSOs, Hoelscher said.

That was the case for Hoelscher, who is Yup’ik and used to be a VPSO in his home village of Hooper Bay in Western Alaska from 2009 to 2015.

“When you’re policing in your own community, every decision you make directly impacts the lives of your neighbors, friends and family,” Hoelscher said. “This awareness fosters a greater commitment to fairness, transparency and integrity in my actions.”

Legalizing weapon carry for VPSOs

Originally, VPSOs were armed with a baton, Taser, handcuffs and protective vests and were not allowed to carry firearms, except in case of an emergency.

In 2014, a bill was signed into law to allow VPSOs to carry guns on the job. The legislation was prompted by the death of Thomas Madole, who was shot in 2013 while responding to a report of a suicidal person. In the history of the program, two VPSOs have died in the line of duty, Hoelscher said.

Under state statute, a VPSO can be armed after they complete a firearm training program certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council, pass a psychological examination and meet the firearms qualification requirements.

Additionally, the regional organization that employs them must have opted into arming their officers, and the officer needs to submit a letter confirming they want to carry a firearm, Hoelscher said. The state has to verify that the officer meets the requirements.

If a VPSO were to use deadly force against another person — including, but not limited to, the use of a firearm — the Alaska Bureau of Investigation would conduct a criminal investigation to determine if any criminal laws were violated, Hoelscher said. Once the Alaska Office of Special Prosecutions reviewed the criminal investigation, the VPSO Division at the Department of Public Safety and the VPSO’s employer would conduct an administrative investigation into any policy violations.

The VPSO Division can revoke an officer’s license for serious concerns raised by community members, the employer or other law enforcement officers.

The estimated cost in the 2014 bill for providing firearms, training and liability insurance for 20 officers was $62,000 annually. A current exact cost is difficult to estimate because officers might need different levels of training, travel expenses and frequency of training sessions, Hoelscher said. But for the Northwest Arctic Borough, the cost should not exceed $20,000 for arming six VPSOs this year, Hatch said.

Slow start to arm VPSOs

After arming VPSOs became legal, some regional entities approved having their officers carry firearms. Michael Gagliano briefly worked as an armed VPSO for the Northwest Arctic Borough, and the Association of Village Council Presidents — a consortium supporting tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta — armed Hoelscher.

Hoelscher first worked as the chief of police in his home community, carrying a firearm on the job. He then became a VPSO, working unarmed for about five years, in a remote area where he frequently found himself to be a primary law enforcement presence for miles around.

When the discussion about arming VPSOs started, Hoelscher said, many community members “showed reluctance towards accepting the notion of armed officers, a reluctance likely rooted in past experiences with law enforcement.”

When Hoelscher started carrying a weapon during his last year as a VPSO, he said he had one incident where he had to draw his firearm, but he never had to use it.


“I was happy to have the training and the support and having a firearm with me on certain calls because it allowed for me to respond, and protect not only myself, but the other community members during those calls,” Hoelscher said. “Nonetheless, I always approached such situations with a focus on de-escalation and ensuring the safety of all involved.”

Hoelscher left his VPSO job in 2015, a decision that he said was reinforced by uncertainty over whether he’d continue to be able to carry a firearm on the job and work safely and effectively.

Since then, he said, no other VPSOs in Alaska have carried firearms on the job — until now.

[From 2016: Effort to arm some village officers is off to a slow start]

The fact that it’s so rare to have an armed VPSO makes people hesitant to want to move forward with it, Hoelscher said.

“People have a fear of the unknown,” Hoelscher said. “We’re hoping that through education and through understanding that (VPSOs) have been through a proper vetting process, this might allow for more programs that want to arm their VPSOs to move forward.”

Pros and cons

With subsistence hunting at the core of life in rural Alaska, firearms are commonplace in village households, and VPSOs regularly respond to incidents where others might be armed.

“In incidents where a use of force was reported, we have had 38 VPSOs injured while working” across Alaska, Hoelscher said.


Hatch, with the Northwest Arctic Borough, added that while random assaults on officers in his region are relatively rare, they often find themselves responding to domestic violence-related assaults in progress, where people resist arrest by fighting or threatening them.

Allowing VPSOs to carry guns is meant to keep them and the public safe, he said.

“When we had a high-intensity crime — someone with a gun threatening to kill people or shooting — our guys couldn’t do anything to help the community,” Hatch said. “Now they have a tool to help the community in that worst-case scenario. And we hope it never happens.”

Borough Mayor Dickie Moto, who used to work as a VPSO in Deering and other villages in the past, said that it is also important to make sure that officers can protect themselves and others from wildlife.

“We live in a unique remote environment. Just the other week, they had to shoot a polar bear in Kivalina,” he said. “We want to ensure the safety of our people.”

The shift could also help bring in and retain officers, Hatch said.

In the recent past, the VPSO program had been shrinking. This year, 75 positions across the state are filled, but Hatch said that the borough, which currently has six officers, is actively looking to hire more. He said that ideally, they would have two officers in every community for a total of 20, but for now, it’s not feasible with current funding and existing infrastructure.

Turnover has also been an issue that left the borough without any VPSOs for periods of time in 2020 and other years, he said. Hatch said they lost a lot of good officers over the years who felt unsafe doing their job unarmed.

Northwest Arctic Borough VPSO coordinator Joshua Harville said that recruiting candidates to work in the region has been a challenge, in part because it’s rare for a law enforcement agency to send officers to such assignments as domestic violence calls by themselves unarmed.

“It’s been kind of a shock to people from outside the state that our officers are unarmed. It’s super unique,” he said. “Having the ability to arm our officers will better help us recruit more officers to better serve our communities.”

But arming officers brings its own concerns as well.

“It is a huge responsibility on that VPSO,” Hoelscher said. “If you’re living in a community that you have that close-knit ties to, and if you have a firearm ... you have to be comfortable or at least at peace knowing that there’s a chance that you might have to use that, and that’s a difficult mental hurdle for a lot of people.”


When the 2014 statute was considered, one concern was that VPSO training and selection were less rigorous than that for Alaska State Troopers. During the 2014 VPSO Arming Pilot Project, out of 21 VPSOs who showed interest in being armed, only three could pass the physical fitness test and criminal background check, the Anchorage Daily News reported at the time.

Since then, the program has made several changes to training, Hoelscher said. Officers now attend a 12-week academy in Sitka that focuses on the law enforcement aspects of their jobs and a three-week academy in Bethel that includes training on fire and medical response, search and rescue, jail guard, cold-weather survival and robust cultural awareness training. In 2022, the background check process for applicants was also formalized.

Liability concerns have been another source of hesitation for organizations considering arming their officers, Hoelscher said. In 2016, three VPSOs passed the arming transition class but none of them carried firearms due to questions regarding liability insurance, he said.

“There are currently proactive meetings and discussions occurring that can hopefully alleviate and clarify most concerns regarding liability,” Hoelscher said.

[Firearm training for VPSOs could begin in January; some villages may opt out]

Hoelscher said that historically, it’s rare for VPSOs to be sued for excessive use of force, in part because they’re usually unarmed and have to respond to incidents using the limited tools available to them. Drawing on that experience can help VPSOs respond with ethics and care, without necessarily using a weapon, even after they become armed, he said.


“They already understand situations that can be de-escalated without using a firearm,” Hoelscher said. “You can’t outdo experience.”

For new VPSOs, clear policies and procedures, good supervision, mentorship from experienced officers and reoccurring training are key to guiding VPSOs on when and how to respond to emergencies without firearms.

“Our approach involves providing comprehensive training that emphasizes de-escalation techniques, conflict resolution, and the use of non-lethal intervention methods,” he said. “Crisis intervention training is particularly relevant, equipping VPSOs with the skills to manage high-stress situations without the use of firearms, especially those involving mental health crises.”

Overall, being armed comes with a stronger need to build relationships and trust with residents, Hoelscher said.

Arming officers in the Northwest Arctic Borough

Last year, the Northwest Arctic Borough started preparing to arm their VPSOs, Hatch said.

They put policies in place to have all their VPSOs go through an independent extensive background check, get a character reference and take a psychological exam — not required for VPSOs elsewhere but required by statute to be armed, Hatch said. The borough also put in more training and certification requirements, including yearly refresher training in the use of force and continual training in the field.

As a result, candidates need to meet more requirements to work as a VPSO for the Northwest Arctic Borough than for other organizations, Hatch said.

For example, at the state level, VPSOs can be hired if they have domestic violence convictions as long as the conviction was more than 10 years before their hire date, though they would be disqualified from being able to carry a firearm on the job. Under the Northwest Arctic Borough’s updated VPSO policy, a domestic violence record would disqualify a candidate from being hired at all.

“That should increase the quality of officers that work for the borough in the long term,” Hatch said.

While the borough is still working on how to measure whether arming officers is beneficial for the program, they have a clear goal in mind.

“If we don’t lose an officer and civilians are protected, we’re successful,” he said.

Five of the borough VPSOs are now waiting for the weapons required to complete their training, and most of them are expected to be armed by the end of summer, Hatch said.

Harville — who already received his 9mm Glock handgun, completed all training and was approved by the Department of Public Safety last month — is now armed.

He said that having a gun shouldn’t change anything about how he conducts his work.

“It’s just another tool on my tool belt,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything really, other than having the ability to defend myself or another community member if the need arises.”

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Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.