A legislative working group is preparing recommendations for the Legislature aimed a revamping Alaska's Village Public Safety Officer program, which is in distress, leaving some communities in rural Alaska with no regular law enforcement presence.  

A letter to members of the Alaska Legislature from Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, regarding the creation of the VPSO working group in May describes the situation: 

"The VPSO program today is plagued with high turnover and retention rates that are epidemic in proportion and leave many small communities in Alaska, challenged by long response distances, difficult weather and transportation challenges, without any law enforcement presence." 

At the time of the letter, dated May 9, 2019, there were only 40 VPSOs serving more than 150 remote communities. 

The working group, made up of legislators, met Thursday to review a draft version of its report containing the following recommendations: 

  1. Update the VPSO statutes to provide a clear law enforcement and public safety vision and mission for the program and provide VPSO personnel clear law enforcement duties and powers.
  2. Create more financial flexibility for the VPSO grantee organizations into the updated VPSO statutes. 
  3. Restore VPSO funding levels to FY18 levels. 
  4. Repeal unfunded mandates. 
  5. Related to recommendation 4, in an updated VPSO statute, mandate that grant awards pay grantee organization their full indirect costs. 
  6. Move financial grant management to the Department of Commerce. 
  7. Maintain operational advisory, training and experience requirement oversight at DPS. 
  8. In statute create a Tribal/Grantee organization consultation process before the Department can change training and experience requirements. 
  9. Revised versions (consistent with the recommendations of this report) of current VPSO regulations need to be placed in statute in order to operationalize the VPSO program and to facilitate the grant management moving to the Department of Commerce. 

The VPSO program was implemented in the late 1970s. Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, who is serving as a co-chair of the working group, said VPSOs were intended to supplement the job of a trooper but often end up taking on more than their statutory duties. 

"Right now there's a mismatch in that the statutes in our laws say that a VPSO is primarily for search and rescue, for fire suppression, for emergency medical response. But in fact, they are also a strong law enforcement presence in rural Alaska and the communities expect them to apprehend offenders, to conduct investigations because they are the boots on the ground," Kopp explained. 

In addition to clarifying the duties of VPSOs to include law enforcement duties, the working group intends to recommend doing away with the Department of Public Safety's cap on indirect costs, such as human resources services, including recruitment efforts. 

While the group would like DPS to continue to oversee the operation and training of the program, the group is recommending the Department of Commerce take over financial grant management. 

Contractors have voiced concerns regarding a lack of transparency, and funding requests have been denied by DPS for the following:

  • New tires for all terrain vehicles where the vehicles themselves were approved program expenses;
  • Funds to allow VPSO personnel to rove between villages within a grantee organization region;
  • The Department via regulation has forbidden VPSOs from working on felonies even though the department's own data shows that when VPSOs work felonies like sexual assault, the conviction rate for those crimes go up.
  • VPSOs are not permitted to attend SART — sexual assault response team — training. The justification given is that "SART training is for Alaska State Troopers." 

The draft report describes the difficulty that exists with DPS managing the grant funds: 

"At the department level, many of the programs' requests are viewed as inappropriate. The organizations' perspective is that there is a lack of transparency to all matters relating to funding as well as a mother-may-I approach to funding requests and that the department nickel and dimes the programs via the approval process." 

The report continues: 

"With little clarity available from the statutes, those differences are likely to persist." 

In addition to the recommendations, the draft report also identifies long-term goals for the program, which include bolstering training for VPSOs and advocating for recurring federal funds for public safety in rural Alaska. 

A final report is due on Jan. 31. 

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