Bronze statue honors first VPSO killed in the line of duty
For the first time, an Alaska Village Public Safety Officer killed in the line of duty has been memorialized with a bronze statue. It only stands about two feet tall, but the man behind the project says he hopes it can send a much larger message to other officers and Alaskans.
"I'm Alaska Native, Officer Ron Zimin was Alaska Native also, it's part of Alaska Native cultures to honor those heroes who have been slayed in the line of duty while protecting our villages," said Mark Livingston, the former Anchorage police officer who has spent more than ten years working on the project.
As visitors step through the glass doors of the state crime lab in Anchorage, they'll be greeted by a friendly face.
"A smile was sculpted on his face to indicate his friendliness and willingness to help," Livingston said of the statue's design. "We sculpted his hand reaching out to greet strangers to show his caring for other people."
Zimin was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance in South Naknek in 1986. His death highlighted the dangers of working as a VPSO, which often involves operating as a lone officer in violent situations.
"If I needed help, I'd call on the radio and instantly, almost instantly, I'd have twenty to thirty police officers helping me out here. Out in rural Alaska, it might be six hours, twelve hours, it might be a day or two depending upon weather conditions," Livingston said.
Now, decades after Zimin's death, the VPSO program is struggling to recruit.
"We lose about thirty percent of our VPSO's a year," said Capt. Andrew Merrill, commander of the VPSO program statewide. "The longevity of a VPSO when we hire them is about three to four years."
Merrill says the program has seen a sharp decrease in numbers since he took over leadership in 2014 — from around 100 VPSO's then to less than 50 now. He notes several reasons for the decline, including the uncomfortable situation local VPSO's may find themselves in, having to arrest family members or close acquaintances.
"We still have some communities out in Western Alaska who don't have running water. Like Teller, Alaska, they don't have running water and so you're still using honey buckets. And so that can be a shock to many people when they go to those communities," Merrill, who also oversees Troopers' detachment in that area, said. "We have people who think they can do it and then they get out to Western Alaska and they can't."
Merill says the statue of Zimin is good for morale.
"A lot like our Troopers they do a really hard job. They walk a very fine line on how they work in our communities — being a positive influence, but also helping hold people accountable," Merrill said.
For his part, Livingston says he hopes the statue will encourage others to step up to serve in the program.
"We don't take the VPSO's for granted. We appreciate what they do," Livingston said.
Livingston says his goal is to someday secure a full-size statue of Zimin, which he estimates would cost about 100,000 dollars. For now, Livingston says he's focused on getting another small statue to place at the public safety training academy in Sitka.
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