Legislative working group recommends clearer role for VPSO program
The Village Public Safety Officer program is “significantly underfunded” and its mission is not clear under current Alaska statute, according to a legislative working group trying to address recruitment and retention problems with the program.
The VPSO working group met at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office on Thursday to speak about draft recommendations that would be made to the Alaska Legislature this year.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, a Republican from Anchorage, is the co-chair of the group and said the VPSO program is under distress but not broken. “It takes an attitude of humility for all of us to admit you’re in a crisis,” he said.
The central change proposed by the working group is to update the statute that describes the VPSO’s mission when the Legislature next convenes on Jan. 21.
The current VSPO statute was written in the 1970s and doesn’t detail the law enforcement work that village police officers do in reality. The program’s unclear mission has hindered how funding is allocated, the working group found.
"There is a problem legally with funding a program that has gone beyond its statutory duties," Kopp said.
In June, the governor vetoed $3 million in funding for village police officers that had lapsed. Kopp said that was partly because the funding was allocated for law enforcement functions that VPSOs are not directed to do under the current Alaska statute.
“If I was to lay the blame for this problem, it would be at the Legislature’s feet,” Kopp said.
Leonard Wallner, director of the VPSO program for Chugachmiut, a regional non-profit corporation, said that VPSOs often respond when Alaska State Troopers are not available and do the primary work of law enforcement officers in rural Alaska.
“Even though when it comes to the more serious issues they’re not supposed to be,” Wallner said before continuing to advise that “putting this in statute, in our opinion, is imperative.”
Amending the VPSO statute and reforming the program have been discussed by the Legislature in the past.
“They’re still the same problems we had 10-15 years ago,” Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat from Golovin, said after he chaired a similar VPSO taskforce a decade ago. “In the next five to 10 years I don’t want to see the same issues coming back to me again and I plan on being here.”
The working group is also proposing to ensure the indirect costs of the VPSO program are funded such as fuel for housing in remote villages. The Department of Public Safety places a cap on funding for indirect costs that the group recommends be abolished.
Kopp said village police officers are “significantly underfunded” and part of the working group’s function would be finding out how much funding the program really requires.
Shifting grant management functions to the Commerce Department from the DPS was highlighted as a priority for the group.
“Current lack of clear law enforcement vision, mission, vision and duties for the program have led to a conflict of roles within the Department between the VPSO program and the division of Alaska State Troopers,” the working group wrote.
That funding conflicts make it so that village police officers are prevented from investigating felonies or attending training to be part of sexual assault response teams, according to the group’s research.
Olson said he was the only legislator living under the jurisdiction of a village police officer in the remote community of Golovin but did not say the program is beyond repair.
“Fortunately we have a VPSO that is very effective,” he said. “I can say the program is not broken, it has its issues”
The working group could keep working for two to four years to implement its recommendations, Kopp said. The group discussed nine short and long-term recommendations aimed at improving the VPSO program.
- Update the VPSO statute to clarify its mission: The working group found the current mission written in the 1970s doesn’t detail the law enforcement work VPSOs do in reality. The group says the lack of clarity in the law has hindered how the VPSO program is funded and how it functions.
- Create more financial flexibility: Contractors who receive grants are often forbidden from spending funds on expenses like travel costs which are necessary for VPSOs to do their work in remote villages.
- Restore funding to FY18 levels: According to the working group, there have been “artificial funding lapses with the program” due to an unclear mission.
- Get rid of unfunded mandates, pay indirect costs: There is a cap on how much the VPSO program can receive for indirect costs such as administration and human resource services. Indirect costs are not fully funded.
- Department of Commerce to manage grants: Currently the Department of Public Safety manages grants, and the working group recommends that move that to the Commerce Department which is said to be better able to manage grant funding.
- DPS maintain training: Working group recommends that DPS maintains operational advisory and oversight for VPSOs saying it is currently the most capable department.
- Tribal guarantee through statute: A longer-term goal of the working group is to create a formal agreement with tribal groups, giving more local control over the VPSO program.
- Putting regulations in statute: Revised versions of VSPO regulations need to be put in statute, the work group recommends.