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Effort to arm VPSOs trudges forward with support from Native organizations, troopers

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 6, 2014

The trial of Leroy Dick Jr., who stands accused of killing village public safety officer Thomas Madole in the Bristol Bay village of Manokotak in March 2013, started Monday with jury selection. The shooting set in motion potential changes to rural law enforcement statewide.

Whether Dick ever again sees life outside a jail cell is up to jurors in Dillingham.

Dick shot and killed 54-year-old Madole, who was responding to a report of a possibly suicidal person at Dick's home, according to the charges. An Alaska State Trooper wrote in an affidavit that Madole realized he was in danger after hearing threats and Dick loading a rifle. He tried to run but was shot several times.

Four months later, Gov. Sean Parnell signed legislation that would allow the previously unarmed VPSOs like Madole to carry firearms.

All 10 regional organizations that receive state grants to oversee VPSOs are participating in the subsequent process, asking for specifics about liability and training.

Lt. Andrew Merrill, commander of the Alaska Department of Public Safety's VPSO program, said the effort to arm the officers is moving forward, though questions keep cropping up.

"Every time we answer one question it leads into 10 more what-ifs," Merrill said of the meetings with the regional organizations. "We're trying to establish a solid framework. We don't want to train them, have one go out and use deadly force and not be prepared for that particular scenario."

"We can't prepare for everything, but we want to address what we can," he said.

Unarmed peace officers -- for now

The death of Madole last year had Alaskans questioning why the lone law enforcement presence in many rural communities serve without firearms.

Village public safety officers are unarmed peace officers employed by Native nonprofit corporations with state funding. Money from the state is passed through to the nonprofits for the officers' salaries and benefits, but the nonprofits make the hiring decisions and write the paychecks.

Bristol Bay Native Association hired Madole, a one-time Bethel pastor.

There are arguments for and against arming the officers, many of whom hail from the villages they are paid to protect. VPSOs have been known to respond to altercations involving family and friends. Also, Alaskans living off the road system rely on guns to practice subsistence -- firepower isn't in short supply in the villages.

Still, the shooting prompted the Alaska Legislature to unanimously pass House Bill 199. Introduced by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, the bill gave Native associations the option to allow VPSOs "to carry firearms in the performance of their duty."

VPSOs will travel to Sitka, to the Department of Public Safety's training academy, and begin firearms training as early as January, although the training schedule has not been firmed up.

Requirements and resources

The regional organizations and VPSO program coordinators met in September, and there is another meeting set for December. Merrill said they plan to "work through and finalize" training and other requirements.

Standards for background checks, psychological wellness and physical fitness are being finely tuned. Troopers and the VPSOs' employers have expressed a desire for high-quality training.

Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Fairbanks-based consortium of 42 Interior tribes, passed a resolution early this year supporting the effort to arm VPSOs while calling for stringent requirements.

Despite the consensus on training, because village public safety officers are not municipal, state or federal law enforcement officials, Merrill said there are certain protections and rights the regional organizations will need to provide its newly armed employees.

"Troopers have those protections because they belong to the union," the lieutenant said. "If they're involved in a use-of-deadly-force incident, a union representative or lawyer provides guidance throughout the aftermath, protecting their rights."

Is each nonprofit, he asked, going to provide those ancillary resources to their VPSOs?

Ralph Anderson, chief executive for Bristol Bay Native Association, said his organization is working to establish those resources.

"We don't have anyone armed right now, so it was never a need until recently," Anderson said. "That's something we have to work on, but I think VPSOs are a long ways from being armed."

Tanana Chiefs Conference VPSO Sgt. Jody Juneby Potts said she is making sure a peer support system is in place for her officers. TCC already has its own behavioral health department, but Potts hopes to provide more than a counselor.

"I want to make sure they're able to speak to someone who can relate to their situation," she said.

Adjusting training and procedures

Beyond the larger issues, nuanced questions remain. For example, troopers previously trained village public safety officers to carry Tasers on their "strong sides," meaning right-handed officers toted the less-than-lethal weapon on their right hips.

"Because they've never carried guns, because we never anticipated this, they've carried Tasers on their strong side just like a trooper would carry his firearm," Merrill said.

Now, the officers are expected to carry guns in the same place. Merrill said the VPSOs need to be trained so they don't inadvertently draw their guns expecting a Taser.

The issue is not unprecedented. Merrill mentioned a San Francisco incident in which Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, according to his defense, confused his gun for his Taser and killed Oscar Grant III in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009. A year later, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

"We've already had the VPSOs transition their Tasers to the opposite side so they can break muscle memory," Merrill said.

‘It’s a personal choice’

The process is moving slowly, but the Native associations like it that way.

A total of 20 VPSOs may be armed as part of the pilot project, Merrill said. However, only half the regional organizations have confirmed they have officers who would like to be among the first to carry firearms, he said.

The law does not require VPSOs to be armed. Rather, it makes it an option for the Native associations and their villages.

Potts said TCC supports arming the officers, but it is ultimately up to the tribes and the VPSOs. So far, five certified, badge-wearing officers have expressed an interest in receiving the training, she said.

Additionally, she emphasized that any new hires will undergo multiple evaluations to ensure they're physically and mentally fit to protect communities, firearm or no.

"We don't want to do this quick, because there are so many things to think about," Potts said.

Anderson said BBNA is in the process of contacting villages where VPSOs are located and getting a feel for the notion of gun-carrying officers. He said not all officers want to carry firearms.

"I was talking to an officer recently, and he was telling me he's not sure if it's something he wants to go through with," Anderson said. "It's a personal choice, as well."

Madole remains in the thoughts of Manakotak residents. A dedication for the officer, who was well-liked by villagers, is planned for Sunday, Anderson said.

As for his accused killer and the trial, assistant attorney general Robert Henderson of the Office of Special Prosecutions said jury selection should wrap up Thursday. He anticipated the jurors will enter deliberations after a week of trial.

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