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VPSO gun debate heard in Legislature

By Rhonda McBride 5:51 AM January 29, 2014

State officials say training Village Public Safety Officers to carry firearms would cost about $60,000 annually.

JUNEAU – Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about whether Alaska Village Public Safety Officers should carry guns.

But when a VPSO was killed in the line of duty last year, talk turned into action.

House Bill 199, a measure that will allow VPSO’s to carry firearms, was heard in a packed House committee room Tuesday morning, with strong debate on both sides of the issue.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, (D) Dillingham, is one of the bill’s main sponsors. He said he was troubled by the death of Thomas Madole, who was the VPSO for the Bristol Bay community of Manokotak until he was shot and killed by a suicidal man last March. Edgmon and others felt Madole, 54, might have been able to protect himself had he carried a gun.

Madole’s death brought up memories of another Bristol Bay tragedy, the shooting death of VPSO Ronald Zimin in 1986. Zimin died while responding to a domestic violence call in South Naknek.

Those deaths were in the backdrop of Tuesday’s testimony.

Former Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters said he believes  the job of VPSO is growing more dangerous — that violence in Rural Alaska has been increasing since 2002. Masters told the House Community and Regional Affairs committee that a change in the state’s policy barring VPSOs from carrying firearms is long overdue.

The current Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety, Terry Vrabek, also supports arming VPSOs.

“If this bill gets passed, we will gladly be part of it and try to get them the required training necessary for them to be able to be armed, if their employers so decide,” Vrabek said.

Although VPSOs work in collaboration with Alaska State Troopers, their positions are mostly funded by the state. They are usually employees of a nonprofit agency, typically run by an Alaska Native organization.

The history of how VPSOs came to be appeared not to be well understood by the committee, nor those who came to testify. Committee members asked if VPSOs had ever been state employees: No one in the room seemed certain of the answer.

Decades ago, when the movement started, there were very few Alaska Native troopers. One of those, the late Glenn Godfrey Sr., became a champion for the program. Godfrey, an Aleut from Kodiak, rose to become a colonel for the state troopers and later, as public safety commissioner, continued to support the VPSO program.

Godfrey saw the program as a stepping stone for Natives to become troopers, as well as a cultural bridge to ease tensions between troopers and Native communities.

One sign of that tension is the word for “trooper” in Yup’ik, the main Native language of Southwest Alaska. Today, a trooper is still called “tegusta,” meaning “someone who comes to take you away.”

Program supporters hoped VPSOs would transform the people’s concept of public safety into something more positive. That’s why VPSOs were put under the supervision of local nonprofits instead of troopers — to be closer to the people.

Over time, VPSOs evolved into more than just law enforcement officers.

“Many villages embrace their VPSOs,” Vrabeck said. “They do a lot of things in rural villages that you’re not going to do in the city of Juneau or Anchorage.”

Over the years, the program has had its struggles retaining officers, partly due to low pay and poor benefits. But also, many recruits did not like being put in the position of arresting a relative for bootlegging or drunken behavior. Such pressures could be overwhelming in a village.

VPSOs have been described as the Leatherman tool of law enforcement. While they may tell kids to slow down as they speed down village boardwalks on their bikes or jail someone for beating up his wife, they also fight fires and assist in medical emergencies. Their training has reflected these multiple hats.

Now, debate begins in earnest about the how much training would be needed for VPSOs to take on a new role as armed law enforcement officers. Alaska has slightly less than 100 VPSOs. New recruits as well as existing ones would have to be trained.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, the Public Safety Employees Association weighed in against arming VPSOs. The association’s executive director, Jake Metcalfe, told the committee there were fears VPSOs probably wouldn’t get enough training on how or when to use deadly force. Metcalfe recommends that VPSOs become state employees and get a higher level of training on par with certified police officers — either that, or put more troopers in the villages.

Vrabek said neither plan was realistic given the state’s budget problems, but he said training VPSO’s to carry firearms would cost very little, about $60,000 a year, yet pay big dividends in added safety.

The PSEA, and other troopers testifying, said the policy change would in fact increase the dangers for both the VPSO and the community.

“Simply giving them a gun does not make them a police officer,” said Trooper Jesse Carson, who testified via teleconference. “It’s the greatest responsibility we have and it shouldn’t be handed out lightly.”

Carson, who has worked as a trooper for 11 years, also warned that arming VPSOs could open up the state to costly lawsuits because it would be easy for attorneys to argue they did not get adequate training.

One of the co-chairs of the committee, Rep. Ben Nageak of Barrow, agreed the Legislature has an important decision to make.

“It’s such a big deal, I think, to give someone the power to carry a gun in the line of duty,” Nageak said. “I want my people protected. I want my people… to have the best thing available to them, so that they can live life knowing that they will be protected when something happens in their village.”

Nageak represents the North Slope Borough, which pays for its own police protection with help from taxes on oil company property.

As the hearing drew to a close, the other committee co-chair, Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, said she had to call attention to something she thought had been overlooked in the hearing — the fact that guns are everywhere in Rural Alaska.

“Guns are as much are part of life as carrying a sandwich to school,” LeDoux said. “Where you go down the street, somebody might say, ‘Hey! Watch out for that bear. It’s a block away.’”

“To keep Village Public Safety Officers from carrying arms as we do now, they may be the only people in the villages who are not carrying arms,” LeDoux said.

Rep. Bob Herron, (D) Bethel, represents Southwest Alaska, the region of the state with the most VPSOs.

In Herron’s district, VPSOs are managed by the Association of Village Council Presidents. He said AVCP polled all the officers in its organization and there was unanimous support for arming VPSOs.

Although Herron is also one of the co-sponsors of the bill, he worries that if it passes, communities will shirk their responsibility to support VPSOs.

Even if the VPSO has a gun, Herron said, “The VPSO needs to walk into that situation knowing he’s not going it alone. He needs to know that the community is behind him. And that’s the hardest part about society.”

“There’s this perception that we want them only when we need them. But when they need the community to back them up, that’s the hardest part,” Herron said.

Click here to read the entire text of the bill. 


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