State VPSO program struggles with local hire
They're the first responders in Alaska villages, but in the last two years, funding for the Village Public Safety Officer program has plummeted. In the face of a multi-billion dollar budget gap, the state has cut the VPSO program by 23 percent in the last two years, according to the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
With an increase in crime statewide, has come an increase in demand for their services, but VPSOs are getting harder to recruit.
"We can't find candidates who are willing to be VPSOs in their communities or who qualify because they have barrier crimes such as importation of alcohol or other crimes that prevent them from being VPSOs," VPSO program commander, Captain Andrew Merrill, told state lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month. "So, what we're finding now is we're importing VPSOs from around the state. More than 50 percent of our VPSOs are not from the communities they actually serve."
DPS has teamed VPSOs up with Troopers as part of the solution. VPSOs like Dillingham's Colby Alakayak are known as rovers -- meaning they travel to surrounding villages, and act as a local liaison when Troopers receive a call.
"It’s kind of like a close-knit group that we are, like a band of brothers," said Alakayak. The 26-year-old grew up in a law enforcement family in Dillingham.
"I like helping people. It’s a passion that I like, it’s just you know, helping somebody who can’t help themselves," Alakayak explained.
For the most part, the villages Alakayak serves are quiet -- like Aleknagik, a small town just 23 miles from Dillingham -- but sometimes it can get ugly.
"There's a lot of domestic violence here. Most of it has to do with either alcohol or drugs," Alakayak said.
When that happens off the road system, Troopers and Alakayak might not be able to get there. When they do, there's little back-up around.
In just the last two years -- the number of VPSOs has dropped dramatically, from 92 officers statewide in 2015, down to 51 now.
The Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA) is in charge of hiring for the region, which is made up of 31 communities. The organization says budget cuts, an increase in opioid abuse, on top of a new physical fitness test, have sometimes forced them to recruit from outside Alaska.
"You want somebody in the community that's very attuned and is culturally relevant going into their community," said Wassiliisia "Dee Dee" Bennis, Chief Administrative Officer for BBNA. "There might be someone who can have a good personality and that knows a community, that's well respected, but not be able to do sixty push-ups or sit-ups."
As of 2015, the VPSO program requires that new recruits pass a physical fitness test, which includes running 1.5 miles in 12 minutes and fifteen seconds, and performing 27 push-ups and 25 sit-ups in one minute, according to Carla Akelkok, who runs the program for BBNA.
"I don’t think we do this type of exercise on a daily basis," said Akelkok. "What we do is we, our exercise is we live the subsistence lifestyle. We moose hunt and gather fish and pick berries."
For Alakayak, the job is two-fold. He knows the culture and the people -- some of whom are his family, and some of whom he's had to arrest.
"They always take the 'I'm your cousin' card. I'll say 'well no, it doesn't work like that. You committed a crime'", Alakayak said.
Even when it comes to the parts of his job that aren't so pretty, Alakayak says he's still proud to give the kids in his community a role model they can look up to.
Even when the VPSO program finds people willing to relocate, Merrill says finding places for them to live is another obstacle.
"We have communities where VPSOs are living in substandard housing," Merrill told lawmakers. "We typically lose 33 percent of who we hire. The average time that we have a VPSO that works for the program is about two and a half to three years."
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