NOTE: This column was originally published on May 17, 2005.
On April 24, the Daily News published the transcript of testimony given to the Rural Justice Commission by Village Public Safety Officer Simeon Askoak of Russian Mission under the headline “Plea for funding VPSO program preceded officer’s suicide.” In his April 6 testimony to the commission, Askoak described the financial hardships of his village and said that he had to pay for utilities for his VPSO office out of his own pocket because the VPSO program was underfunded.
On April 8, Askoak took his own life.
Readers might be led to believe that the program is indeed underfunded and that financial problems in the program led VPSO Askoak to commit suicide. Out of respect for Askoak and his family, we will not publicly discuss what our investigation concluded. Suffice it to say, we previously approved reimbursement for the expenses he incurred, and his death was not related to the VPSO program that he served for 13 years.
The VPSO program was created some 25 years ago to bring additional public safety services to remote villages. The original intent was to provide villages not with police officers but rather with “first responders” who knew the village residents, spoke the language of the region, coordinated search and rescue and firefighting, taught water safety, investigated minor crimes and performed other duties such as enforcing curfew and controlling dogs. VPSOs are employed by regional nonprofit corporations under grants from the Department of Public Safety. VPSOs receive day-to-day support and guidance from state troopers, while the leadership in each village determines what services they desire.
Over the years, however, the VPSO position has evolved into more of a police officer than a general public safety officer. As that has occurred, fewer local residents have applied for the positions, and today barely half of VPSOs are Alaska Natives. Because sufficient qualified applicants cannot be found in the villages, we must look outside the villages, but recruiting from urban areas to serve in remote villages is no easy task. Because of a lack of qualified applicants, the VPSO program now has positions left vacant, but it is not for lack of funding. Seemingly constant claims that the VPSO program is inadequately funded are simply not true.
At this point, recruitment is a more pressing issue than funding. But should we recruit for public safety officers from the village, who are focused on general safety, or do we want nonresident police officers trained and primarily focused on investigating crimes and making arrests? The state keeps careful track of traumatic injuries in Alaska, and in rural villages there are 10 times as many injuries caused by accidents than there are by people committing crimes. It would seem, therefore, that in terms of the overall welfare of the village, there should be a return to the traditional public safety role. But village residents increasingly want lawbreakers strictly controlled, and therein lies the tension.
It is important to remember that the Alaska State Troopers serve all of Alaska, and they do so fairly and equitably, as shown in the recent decision by the Alaska Supreme Court in the case of Alaska Inter-tribal Council, et al. v. state of Alaska. The VPSO program was intended to augment services provided to villages by the troopers, and the court’s decision shows that the program performs that function well. Over the past two years, Gov. Frank Murkowski, with the support of the Legislature, has substantially increased trooper strength in the rural areas of the state, and the governor has pushed for a renewed focus on reducing the flow of illegal alcohol and drugs to our villages. We believe our efforts are paying dividends for the benefit of village residents.
Funding for the VPSO program as it is currently operating is adequate. I would like nothing better than to seek additional dollars for the program, but I’m not going to do so until we have qualified VPSOs to fill the positions. The unfortunate death of Simeon Askoak leaves one more VPSO position to fill.
Bill Tandeske is the commissioner of Public Safety for Alaska, a 26-year veteran of the Alaska State Troopers and a member of the Rural Justice Commission.