House Bill 199, a bill introduced in the legislature last year by Representative Bryce Edgmon, would authorize Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) to carry firearms in the course of their duties. The bill attempts to give VPSOs a self-protection tool, a firearm, when carrying out law enforcement. According to the proposed legislation, a VPSO can carry a firearm if he or she “meets minimum standards and training.” While on its face this may seem reasonable, carrying a firearm and using deadly force in a law enforcement situation is actually a very complex issue and deserves careful consideration.
We have strict state laws and local ordinances in Alaska regarding who can carry out law enforcement, and who can carry a firearm in the course of those duties. Alaska subjects all state and local police officers to the minimum hiring standards set in statute, and police officers are certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council (APSC). These standards include minimum age, education, moral character, citizenship, and physical and mental standards. Further, most Alaska law enforcement agencies go beyond these minimum regulations, and include psychological evaluations and polygraph examinations in their selection processes.
Once a municipal or state police candidate is successful in passing all of these strict hiring standards and is lucky enough to be hired, he or she begins a nearly year-long process of training before becoming a fully-functioning police officer. First, a candidate must complete one of three police academies in the state. Second, most municipal and state police candidates complete a three to four month field training process. Third, these officers must successfully complete at least one year of on-the-job probation, during which time they are closely evaluated by their supervisors, who are trained and certified police officers themselves. There is no one to better supervise a law enforcement officer than an experienced, highly trained, educated law enforcement officer.
VPSOs are not subjected to the same stringent hiring process as police officers are. In fact, VPSOs are private, corporate employees. They are not state or municipal police officers. They are limited to misdemeanor law enforcement for minor offenses, and much of their time is taken up with emergency medical service, firefighting, and search and rescue duties.
Currently, VPSOs are supervised by the non-profit agencies they represent, but they are overseen by the Alaska State Troopers. The troopers who oversee VPSOs do not have the authority to hire, or terminate the VPSOs in their areas. They merely have the ability to make recommendations to the VPSO’s supervisor regarding their continued employment, justification in a use of force situation, or overall suitability for continued service. The direct supervisor of a VPSO would typically be someone with little to no training in law enforcement or policing at all.
Before the legislature decides to arm VPSOs, the legislature should consider increasing the Alaska State Troopers’ authority in VPSO hiring, supervision, and training. The legislature should also consider requiring VPSOs to be APSC certified police officers.
Alaska law enforcement should be provided by certified, trained Alaska police officers. Police should be hired by a public agency, accountable to the citizens and residents of the area and not by a corporation. Merely giving a VPSO a firearm does not make a community safer; it does not automatically give the VPSO the authority, training, knowledge, and integrity of an Alaska police officer or trooper. It’s time to stop relying on the VPSO program to supplement inadequately staffed rural law enforcement, and time to begin making the providers of rural law enforcement accountable to the citizens who they serve. Alaska’s rural community deserves better. They deserve legitimate police protection.