An effort to allow the arming of village public safety officers in Alaska took another step forward this week as a bill allowing the officers to carry firearms passed the Alaska House of Representatives.
Multiple incidents in recent years of VPSOs statewide contending with violent situations, including the shooting death of Manokotak VPSO Thomas Madole almost a year ago, have prompted communities and lawmakers alike to call for a change.
House Bill 199 establishes the Legislature's intent that VPSOs be allowed to carry firearms but also expands the training program through the Alaska Department of Public Safety's State Trooper Academy in Sitka and establishes a screening ?protocol if villages choose to arm their law enforcement officials.
The bill doesn't require VPSOs to carry firearms. As VPSOs are typically the employees of regional Native associations or the communities they serve, it will be up to those communities to choose whether they want to arm their officers.
"The wishes of the individual communities must be respected," said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, in whose district the officer was slain. "Everyone involved must have a thorough understanding of the issues surrounding arming these officers."
There is some debate about whether arming officers will cause more or less confrontations in rural communities, where backup and response from Alaska State Troopers can sometimes take days due to weather. Some have questioned if adequate training will be provided for officers to deal with deadly force situations.
However, many, including the wife of Madole, have called for VPSOs to be allowed protection, especially considering most rural homes have guns. In the last year, there were four instances where officers in rural communities were threatened with weapons, and law enforcement officials across the state have testified that the number of instances of officers being threatened has increased.
In a recent hearing on the topic, the president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Association, which employed Madole, Ralph Andersen, testified that the social environment of Alaska's rural communities has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the VPSO program was created in the state, with an increase in the use of alcohol and dangerous drugs such as methamphetamines and heroine.
Originally, VPSOs were intended to serve a more general first responder role, given training as initial responders to fires and medical emergencies as well as law enforcement situations. Today, the bulk of the VPSOs duties are law enforcement, state Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters testified at an earlier hearing. Masters said the rate of assaults to police officers that resulted in injury has risen 66 percent since 2002, and assaults that did not cause injury were up 137 percent. In the last two years, he said, there were seven assaults against VPSOs and VPOs involving firearms.
Alaska has been criticized on a national level for what is said to be an inadequate level of protection offered to the members of its rural communities, where crimes like domestic violence, assault and sexual abuse are some of the highest in the nation.
"House Bill 199 will make the state's support for this policy clear and unambiguous," Edgmon said. "It is my strong belief that it's unreasonable to continue to ask these men and women to put their lives in harm's way without being fully equipped to protect themselves."
Details regarding training and oversight were still being drafted by the Department of Public Safety, and discussions with regional Native associations were ongoing, Edgmon said. HB 199 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.