Alaska Legislature passes bill that aims to strengthen VPSO program

The bill passed on Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day
The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill onto Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk that aims to strengthen the state’s Village Public Safety Officer Program.
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 4:16 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill onto Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk that aims to strengthen the state’s Village Public Safety Officer Program.

Senate Bill 81 passed unanimously through the Senate last month. On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the bill on a 34-2 vote. Wasilla Republican Reps. David Eastman and Chris Kurka were the only “no” votes.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said by email that Dunleavy “is committed to improving the VPSO program and rural public safety.” He will review the legislation once it reaches his desk, the statement said.

The VPSO program was established in the 1970s with more limited roles for officers, like fire suppression and helping to protect life and property. But the program’s function has expanded considerably since then, and VPSOs are often the de facto law enforcement for dozens of communities.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, introduced Senate Bill 81 last year after serving on a bicameral and bipartisan working group that studied how to improve the VPSO program. It released its final report two years ago.

The bill aims to follow the report’s recommendations by clarifying the statutory mission of VPSOs and the role of Alaska Department of Public safety in helping to administer the program. SB 81 also strengthens background checks for VPSO candidates through the FBI, and requires psychological evaluations for officers who carry firearms, which is still relatively new.

There was some debate on the House floor about the costs to the state of Alaska in administering background checks, and some calls that local communities should pay for more for the program themselves. Fiscal documents published online suggest three additional officers would need to be hired at an estimated cost of over $300,000 per year. An amendment to cut that funding was ultimately withdrawn.

The legislation would also provide added flexibility for program administrators, which could see “roving” officers who travel and serve between villages. There have been concerns for VPSOs operating in their own small communities who are forced to arrest family and friends.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, spoke on the House floor on Thursday in support of the bill. She was dressed in red for the second national Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

“Everyone, regardless of where they call home, deserves the right to feel safe,” she said.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety says there are currently 52 Village Public Safety Officers working across Alaska, which represents a steep decline from less than 10 years ago. The goal for the department is to double the number of VPSOs over the next several years.

Commissioner Jim Cockrell said in February that the ultimate goal for the department is to have a VPSO in every Alaska community that wants one. Community leaders in rural Alaska say that could help tackle Alaska’s epidemic of domestic violence, and sexual assault.

The Anchorage Daily News reported in 2018 that one third of Alaska communities have no law enforcement at all. Recruitment and retention of VPSOs has been a major challenge across Alaska.

“One of the greatest public safety needs in rural Alaska is local law enforcement presence in our villages,” said Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, in March. “This is why the VPSO program is so important.”

Dunleavy added funding to this year’s budget to hire an additional 10 VPSOs as part of his People First Initiative. He also included a $7-per-hour salary increase for officers in last year’s budget.

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