Village public safety officers will begin training to carry firearms for the first time as early as January, says the statewide coordinator for the rural police force.
Some VPSOs will likely be armed on the job by the end of 2015, said Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Leonard Wallner. Whether regional organizations that employ the officers choose to place guns in their hands remains to be seen, with one CEO saying on Tuesday that villages that do not want their VPSOs to carry guns could opt out.
"If a village doesn't want an armed VPSO, jeez, we wouldn't want to do that," said Ralph Andersen, chief executive for Bristol Bay Native Association.
The Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 federally recognized tribes in Interior Alaska, supports the effort but passed a Feb. 7 resolution saying that any VPSOs who are armed should be required to "meet a physical and mental fitness standard" before hire.
Armed VPSOs should "receive a high level of training to best serve all Alaskans," the resolution said.
"We've got to make sure we're doing the right thing," said Tanana Chiefs spokesman Greg Bringhurst.
All 10 regional organizations that receive state grants to oversee VPSOs in their member villages generally support arming the officers but are seeking more information on how the process would work, Wallner said. In particular, they are asking about liability and public safety.
"Everyone's on board. They just have more questions that need to be answered," he said.
The state plans to talk about some of those details at a quarterly meeting with VPSO contractors in September, Wallner said.
Many rural Alaskans hunt to feed their families, and firearms are commonplace in rural homes, meaning VPSOs often find themselves as the first responders in households where residents have guns and they do not.
The March 2013 shooting of a Manokotak VPSO Thomas Madole, a 54-year-old former Assembly of God pastor, prompted Bristol Bay Native Association to call for the officers to be armed, Andersen said.
"Our board very strongly supports the program and wants to make sure their VPSOs are able to protect themselves," the CEO said.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, proposed that the Legislature expand VPSO powers allowing the officer to carry guns. Lawmakers approved the bill unanimously and it was signed into law by Gov. Sean Parnell July 18 in Naknek.
The bill ensures that VPSOs who meet certain training requirements may carry firearms under Department of Public Safety regulations.
It is unclear how many officers will be armed under the new legislation.
After years of performing the job unarmed, some officers might not see the need to carry a weapon. Individual villages also might choose to keep the officers unarmed despite general support for the program by regional contractors.
A 2013 study ordered by Congress into safety and justice for Native Americans concluded that the village public safety program has been underfunded, understaffed and inappropriately unarmed.
Lawmakers denied requests to add about $60,000 a year to pay for the firearms and for firearm training of 20 VPSOs annually at the state Public Safety Academy in Sitka, which could slow the training, Wallner said.