Attorney General William Barr came to get the lowdown on rural public safety issues in Alaska and got an earful on a difficult and intractable problem.
Barr came at the urging of our congressional delegation in hopes that Washington might find a way to help with an emergency that has been ongoing since before statehood.
Fueled by drug and alcohol addiction in Alaska’s villages, crime is an issue that state agencies have tried to cope with, but have been consistently overwhelmed by. Alaska has 233 villages, many of them with fewer than 400 residents, and more than 70 have no law enforcement capability whatsoever.
Responsibility for public safety falls to the Alaska State Troopers but that agency’s limited force — currently about 300 officers — serves a state of 663,000 square miles. Many of the villages are remote and access is difficult and time-consuming, making response to emergencies very problematic. Access is often dependent on aircraft, boats, snowmachines and the weather.
Dealing with problems like an active shooter is especially challenging. It can taker hours for troopers to respond, leaving tiny villages to deal with deadly problems without immediate police protection.
Alaska once had high hopes for the Village Public Safety Officer program, but that organization has failed to live up to what was considered its potential. Since moving to a small village can be a difficult adjustment for anyone taking a police job, the original hope was that the VPSOs, as they are known, would be recruited from the local population.
But the number of communities where interested and qualified individuals could be found has never been large, necessarily limiting the number of officers that could be hired. And marginal success in such recruiting has caused the state to back off from its earlier commitments to the program.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently took $3 million in unspent funds from the VPSO’s account and assigned it to the Alaska State Troopers for its primary mission. The VPSO program budget is $3 million a year, so it had a full year’s budget in the bank. The money accumulated largely because of unfilled positions.
The reasons the program has difficulty filling jobs are many and at least one of them is a good news/bad news situation. The number of people interested in and qualified for such jobs is necessarily small, but the number of qualified candidates is limited in part because many of the sharpest young men and women are recruited for jobs by the Alaska Native corporations, generally in the state’s larger communities. That pool of talented people is a boon for the corporations but cuts deeply into the number of qualified candidates who might be interested in taking a local law enforcement job.
When the VPSO program was initiated in 1979, the Alaska State Troopers hoped it would be a solution to the longstanding problem of crime and violence in the villages — and the difficulty and time involved in response by sworn troopers to deal with local emergencies.
The VPSO officers went through valuable training sessions at the Public Safety Academy in Sitka and elsewhere, giving them good credentials for their jobs. But training for today’s VPSO’s, and the village police officers hired by some communities, is inconsistent. Originally they were trained in police work, firefighting and emergency medical work. Today that is often not the case.
Attorney General William Barr met with Alaska native leaders shortly after he arrived. They asked for federal help in dealing with the lawlessness problem in rural Alaska. Barr said he would try to find a way.
Let’s hope he does. It’s a tough problem.