The Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program provides a public safety net in rural Alaska, especially in remote villages. The program began in the late 1970s and was designed to train and hire local community members as first responders to public safety emergencies. There are many triumphs and challenges to running a successful VPSO program in rural Alaska. Recruitment and retention of VPSOs require a significant commitment from regional organizations and local communities. There are currently 81 VPSOs spread across the state.
The VPSO program faces many challenges to be successful in a community. As described in the description of the program, the Department of Public Safety works with contractors. The contractors make a commitment to public safety in their region and support VPSOs. Communities also make a commitment if they want an officer in their village. Each community faces different challenges based on their location and availability of resources.
Sgt. Leonard Wallner, the Statewide VPSO Coordinator, spoke about what makes a successful VPSO program. One challenge is retaining VPSOs for an extended period of time. Some VPSOs are from the community or from the region, but many are from outside of the community. Rural Alaskan communities often have a lack of available housing and office space, which are two things VPSOs need to operate.
Sgt. Waller says, “It boils down to the level of support from the community.” Many communities have to commit to providing office space and housing for the VPSOs or come up with an alternative. An alternative may be having itinerate VPSOs who cover more than one community and travel to the village on a daily or weekly basis.
It may create hard feelings. Being a first responder can be a challenge and negativity or grief can build up. Another stressor faced by VPSOs is having to potentially arrest friends or relatives. Sgt. Jody Potts, the VPSO Director at Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), says, “For any local VPSO policing their community, it’s tough.” She goes on to say, “We are on the right side of the law, and holding people accountable. A VPSO will do everything by the letter of the law.”
In addition to providing housing and office space, some sponsoring organizations also help with fuel oil and electricity costs. Resources vary in each community. The cost of shipping building materials to rural and remote rural Alaska can be expensive and thus brings up the costs of housing and office space. Carla Akelkok, VPSO Coordinator based at the Bristol Bay Native Association, says, “Before we advertise, we get in touch with the community, we ask if they have adequate housing and office space.”
VPSOs tend to stay longer in a community if they are from the region or if they marry someone in the community. Sgt. Potts says, “When I’m placing an individual that’s not from a village, I have to think about “Are they going to be able to handle village life?”
The lack of running water and sewer in some villages also provides a challenge. Some VPSOs have to carry water and live with honey buckets or outhouses. Communities that overcome many of these challenges tend to have a successful VPSO program and it makes recruitment and retention easier.
After applying, a VPSO candidate will have to pass a background check and pass a 15-week training academy. For those interested in becoming a VPSO, Sgt. Potts says, “Get in the best physical shape they can and have a positive ‘can do’ attitude.”
The Alaska State Troopers conducts outreach to youth at boarding schools in Galena and Sitka where they hold a Public Safety Law Enforcement Cadet Corp. Sgt. Waller says, “[It] generates interest in careers in public safety and plants a seed.” VPSOs can be hired at age 21. They encourage youth to make good choices, because bad could cause them to be ineligible to be hired. They also encourage youth to go onto college to pursue a criminal justice career.
VPSO recruitment varies by each regional contractor and it is best to contact them individually to find out about current vacancies. Statewide recruitment efforts take place at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention and other annual conferences and events. For more information, please see the regional contacts below or visit www.dps.state.ak.us/ast/vpso/about.aspx.
VPSO Program Contacts
The Alaska State Troopers
Sgt. Leonard Wallner, Statewide VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 269-5511
Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA)
FSgt Michael Nemeth, VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 276-2700
Serving: Adak, Akutan, Atka, Cold Bay, False Pass, Nelson Lagoon, Nikolski and Saint George
Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP)
Alvin Jimmie, VPSO Director
Phone (907) 543-3521 or Toll Free (800) 478-3521
Serving: Akiachak, Akiak, Alakanuk, Atmautluak, Bethel, Chefornak, Chevak, Chuathbaluk, Crooked Creek, Eek, Emmonak, Goodnews Bay, Hooper Bay, Kalskag/Lower, Kalskag/Upper, Kasigluk, Kipnuk, Kongiganak, Kotlik, Kwethluk, Kwigillingok, Marshall, Mekoryuk, Mountain Village, Napakiak, Napaskiak, Newtok, Nightmute, Nunamiqua (Sheldon Point), Nunapitchuk, Pilot Station, Quinhagak, Red Devil, Russian Mission, St. Mary’s, Scammon Bay, Sleetmute, Stony River, Toksook Bay, Tuluksak, Tununak and Tuntutuliak
Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA)
Carla Akelkok, VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 842-5257
Serving: Aleknagik, Chignik, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Clarks Point, Egegik, Ekwok, Iguigig, Iliamna, Kokhanok, Koliganek, Levelock, Manokotak, Naknek, Newhalen, New Stuyahok, Nondalton, Pedro Bay, Perryville, Pilot Point, Port Heiden, Togiak and Twin Hills
Central Council – Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA)
Jason Wilson, VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 586-1432 or Toll Free (800) 344-1432
Serving: Angoon, Coffman Cove, Hydaburg, Kasaan, Pelican, Saxmon, Tenakee Springs, & Thorne Bay
Skip Richards, VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 235-0577 or Toll Free 1-866-235-0577
Serving: Chenega Bay, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Tatitlek, & Tyonek.
Copper River Native Association (CRNA)
FSgt. John Peratrovich, Support Services Manager
Phone (907) 822-5241 / Ext. 2150
Serving: Copper Center, Gakona, Gulkana, & Tazlina
Gina Appolloni, VPSO Director
Serving: Brevig Mission, Elim, Gambell, Golovin, Koyuk, Little Diomede, Savoonga, Shaktoolik, Shishmaref, Saint Michael, Stebbins, Teller, Unalakleet, Wales, and White Mountain
Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA)
Charles T.C. Kamai, VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 486-9800
Serving: Akhiok, Karluk, Larsen Bay, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie, Port Lions,
Northwest Arctic Borough
Christopher Hatch / VPSO Coordinator
Phone (907) 442-2500 ext. 123
Serving: Ambler, Buckland, Deering, Kiana, Kivilina, Kobuk, Noatak, Noorvik, Selawik, and Shungnak
Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC)
Sgt. Jody Potts, VPSO Director
Phone 800-478-6822 ext. 3236
Serving: Alatna, Allakaket, Anvik, Arctic Village, Beaver, Birch Creek, Central, Chalkyitsik, Circle, Eagle, Fort Yukon, Grayling, Holy Cross, Hughes, Huslia, Kaltag, Koyukuk, Manley Village, McGrath, Minto, Nikolai, Nulato, Rampart, Ruby, Shageluk, Stevens Village, Tanana, Tetlin and Venetie
About VPSO Program
The Alaska State Troopers manage the Village Public Safety Officer program but a VPSO is employed by the Native nonprofit corporation that serve as a contractor for their region. These two public safety assets are not interchangeable in their roles within the Criminal Justice System or within their general public safety responsibilities. The two are not comparable in their services nor in the commensurate costs that are involved in establishing their availability in the field.
Law enforcement in most rural areas is the primary responsibility of the Alaska State Troopers. From rural outposts the Troopers attempt to respond immediately to emergencies, felony, and misdemeanor cases. Their efforts, however, are often hampered by delayed notification, long response distance, and the uncertainties of weather and transportation. In communities associated with the VPSO Program, citizens are afforded immediate response to all emergencies without delays caused by weather, distance, or budgetary restraints. Although VPSOs are not expected to handle high risk or complex investigative situations, they are the “First Responders” to all volatile situations in their communities. Working as a team with the Alaska State Troopers, they can stabilize most volatile situations and protect crime scenes until the Troopers can arrive. VPSOs frequently conduct and complete misdemeanor and minor felony investigations with assistance provided by the State Troopers.
Funding for the VPSO Program is provided by the legislature and managed by the Alaska State Troopers. The funds are awarded to participating regional Native nonprofit corporations through grant requests. The primary purpose of regional contracting is to place the local administration of the Program into the hands of an organization more aware of the specific needs of the areas to be served and to deal with a workable number of contracts while retaining a certain amount of regional flexibility. Each contractor, with the concurrence of the Division of State Troopers, selects which communities will participate.
Once the community has been selected, the local community, with the assistance of the State Troopers, is responsible for the selection and the daily activities of the VPSO. The contractor arranges for all salary payments based on the submission of time sheets from the communities. Group insurance plans, retirement plans, and maintenance of full financial accountability of contracted funds are also the responsibility of the contractor.