Rural Alaska

Effort to arm some village officers is off to a slow start

When crisis strikes in rural communities in Alaska, it's often village public safety officers -- VPSOs -- who are on the scene first.

Until recently, VPSOs weren't allowed to carry firearms while on duty. That changed in 2014 when a bill was signed into law to allow VPSOs -- who first must pass a series of tests -- to carry guns on the job.

The unanimously passed legislation was prompted by the death of Thomas Madole, gunned down in 2013 while responding to a report of a suicidal person. Leroy B. Dick Jr. of Manokotak was ultimately sentenced to 99 years for killing the officer in the Bristol Bay village.

At last year's first training for arming VPSOs in Sitka, only two officers passed. And both ultimately quit.

One, James Hoelscher, left his VPSO job to become an enforcement supervisor with the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. The other left the law enforcement field, said Capt. Andrew Merrill, VPSO program commander for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

The second round of training started Monday and will last 21 days. It covers everything from ethics to defensive tactics to scenario training. Three officers are attending, Merrill said, although more VPSOs could be eligible to carry firearms in July. That's because the Sitka training is designed for people who were VPSOs before the arming legislation passed. VPSOs hired after 2014 now attend the Alaska Law Enforcement Training academy, where they also receive firearms training. But it doesn't automatically mean they get to carry a gun.

Some VPSOs don't want the pressure of a gun. Tasers, pepper spray and batons are enough, they believe.


"While there's a safety factor in having a firearm, there are other considerations besides just saying, 'Hey, here's a gun,'" Merrill said.

He recalled one VPSO in Western Alaska who grew up in the tiny community he now works in and didn't like the idea of potentially using deadly force on a relative.

Others aren't allowed to carry firearms. VPSOs can be hired if they have domestic violence convictions as long as the conviction was more than 10 years before their hire date, Merrill said.

"We have VPSOs who fall in that category. The people who have DV convictions cannot possess firearms, so we have VPSOs that we will never be able to arm," he said.

And although the Department of Public Safety does VPSO training, VPSOs are employed by one of 10 entities -- nine Native nonprofit corporations and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Those groups have to opt for arming VPSOs. So far, the Association of Village Council Presidents, Bristol Bay Native Association, the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Tanana Chiefs Conference have approved arming VPSOs. There are 78 VPSO positions across the state, with 10 vacancies as of earlier this month, Merrill said.

Merrill said he expects more groups to join in arming VPSOs but understands they may want to see first if it is successful in other communities.

"We want to give VPSOs the tools to protect themselves and their community if the VPSO wants to be armed, if the community wants them to be armed and if the nonprofit wants them to be armed," he said.