Senators hope a new bill could improve rural Alaska's VPSO retention rate
A new public safety bill is making its way through the Alaska State Legislature. The bill’s authors want to improve Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) retention in Alaska.
The VPSO Program was created in Alaska to help tribal communities hire local public safety officers. VPSOs are more highly trained than tribal police officers or village police officers. They require background checks and training on par with Alaska State Troopers.
But the program has been on the decline. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta alone, the program has shrunk by about 90%. According to Joel Hard, the director of the state's VPSO program, there were once over 30 VPSOs in the region. Now there are four. This creates a big public safety gap in the region. Only eight villages have either a VPSO or Alaska State Trooper post. VPSOs are hired by regional tribal non-profits, but paid for by the state. In the Y-K Delta, that non-profit is the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP).
Former VPSO Ben Beaver Sr. worked in Atmautluak, Akiak, Napakiak, and St. Mary’s. He said that it’s helpful for crime prevention when a community has a locally hired VPSO.
“They know more about culture. Our culture,” said Beaver Sr.
Beaver Sr. said that as a VPSO, when he made an arrest he would often sit the person down and talk to them about why what they did was wrong. He said that’s a crucial part of Yup’ik culture and can help prevent crime in the future.
Hard said that the problem with the program isn’t with hiring new officers, it’s with retaining them. The program has not only shrunk in the Y-K Delta, but statewide.
“At the peak of the program, we had 113 officers. And today, we have 51,” said Hard.
That peak was in 2014. Now a new bill has been created to help reverse those numbers. It’s currently in the Senate Finance Committee. The committee members have two ideas why the retention is so poor: the pay is too low and the working conditions are tough.
“We all recognize that when you're an officer in a small community or village, it's a very difficult job. It's your friends, your relatives, your neighbors, you know, the people that you have to go knock on the door and deal with it personally,” said committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman from Sitka.
Another committee member, Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman, added that the way the state’s funding rules are now, the tribal nonprofits don’t have enough leeway to improve the working conditions for their VPSOs.
“That doesn't give the grantees the flexibility to increase salaries or to provide housing,” said Hoffman.
This bill would grant that flexibility. It would allow the regional tribal nonprofits, which manage the VPSO programs, more space to spend their funds as they see fit. They would be able to increase the starting salary for a VPSO if they wanted, have more than one VPSO per village, and hire roving VPSOs who could travel between villages.
What the bill does not do is fund new VPSO positions. But if the governor’s proposed budget passes as is, the state would fund 10 more VPSO positions. And according to an AVCP spokesperson, the state promised to fund all the positions that AVCP can fill.
The VPSO bill is working its way through the Senate Finance Committee. There is a mirror version currently in the House Committee for Tribal Affairs. The bill must make it out of committee before it can be voted on in the House and Senate floors.