Alaska State Troopers have increased the number of village public safety officers, or VPSOs, spread among the state's far-flung communities to more than 100 for the first time in decades. Since the program's inception in the late 1970s, the villages served by the cadre has fluctuated from about 130 to a low of 45 filled positions in 2007.
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, covering the officers' salaries and benefits. But the nonprofits write the paychecks and decide whom to hire.
Troopers call the two new hires last month a milestone. On July 8, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the second largest borough in the state, covering of approximately 39,000 square miles along Kotzebue Sound, hired a second officer for the village of Kiana. Jin Oh, who was living in Kotzebue when she was hired, will serve the community of 371. She's one of five female VPSOs.
Community leaders in Kiana have wanted a greater law enforcement presence, even lobbying for a trooper post and passing a resolution in 2009 asking for the Department of Public Safety to provide a trooper in its village. As of 2011, the village had two VSPOs but both left the community. In May 2012, Kiana got a new officer. And now, it's back up to two.
Kiana, which means "a place where three rivers meet," is in the service area of troopers' Kotzebue post, 57 miles to the east. It's a traditional Iñupiat Eskimo village practicing a subsistence lifestyle, and the local government restricted the sale of alcohol to the city-owned store.
Oh was Alaska's 100th VPSO. Later, on July 25, the Bristol Bay Native Association hired safety officer number 101 for New Stuyahok, located on the Nushagak River, about 52 miles northeast of Dillingham.
David Walcott, the Native association's hire, was living in the village and wanted to help his community, said troopers' spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. Walcott stepped into his new role Friday. New Stuyahok's other officer is on leave due to injuries not related to the job -- which illustrates why the village, population 507, needs the additional manpower. If an officer takes leave or gets sick, the village still has an authority figure to call upon if something criminal happens. Two officers means they'll often have backup, said city administrator Chuck Peterson.
Backup would have been helpful for VPSO Thomas O. Madole, who was shot and killed in Manokotak back in March. Madole had radioed troopers around 4 p.m. March 19 that he was going to speak with a villager about an earlier altercation. An hour later, another villager reported the officer had been shot, reportedly running away from local resident Leroy B. Dick, Jr., who allegedly shot him with a rifle. It took troopers four hours to reach Manokotak, and they discovered Madole's body lying outside the suspected shooter's home. The community mourned the officer as "irreplaceable."
Madole was one of two village officers based in Manokotak and had been assigned to the community since August 2011. The second officer was away attending training.
Peterson recalled that New Stuyahok has had a VPSO since around the program's inception. But multiple officers have come and gone, either to serve other communities or take jobs more attractive than village peacekeeper.
VPSOs often work in the village they grew up in and may be faced with arresting family members, friends, neighbors or former classmates. They are generally on call 24 hours per day, work weekends and holidays -- all without backup or anyone to relieve them when they need a break.
Still, the program has grown steadily statewide with funds appropriated by the Alaska Legislature to increase the number of positions, according to troopers. Pay and support for the officers has improved over the years to make VPSO a more desirable job, Ipsen said. The annual salary is decent -- $43,500 to $82,500 depending on years of service and rank -- and can be a good way to make a living in communities where poverty is high and there aren't many other jobs.
Studies conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center have found the presence of a local para-professional police officer -- whether VPSO, Village Police Officer or Tribal Police Officer -- significantly decreases the rates of injury from assaults and increases the likelihood of prosecution when these officers are involved in investigating violence against women cases. In the vast majority of these cases, VPSOs were the first responders, according to the study.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com