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State public safety officials back VPSO program in testimony

Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state-financed program that trains and pays public safety officers for villages in rural Alaska is still the best way to keep peace in the state's remote villages, Alaska State Troopers said as a two-week trial in Anchorage drew to a close.

Col. Randy Crawford and Maj. Doug Norris, the troopers' top officers, testified that the village public safety officers deliver a grass-roots service that responds to emergencies and keeps villages safer.

Troopers posted in regional hubs are in nearly daily contact with the villages in their areas, and the officers stationed in Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue and other rural outposts are the force's best and most experienced, they said.

Crawford and Norris were called by the state to refute claims that Alaska provides dual systems of justice and that the one serving 165 predominantly Native villages off the road system is inferior to the one serving similar size on-road towns that are mostly white.

Judge Sharon Gleason will hear closing arguments May 9. A ruling is expected later this year.

The plaintiffs in the case include Alaska Natives and rural villages. They argue that the VPSOs get only about one-sixth the training troopers receive and that their inability to carry guns endangers them and hurts their credibility in the villages they serve.

Turnover among VPSOs has traditionally been high, and about 75 villages have no local public safety presence at all. Other villages are protected by village or tribal police officers who have even less training than the VPSOs, the plaintiffs say.

When shooting starts or some other local emergency occurs, help from troopers can be hours or even days away, depending on weather and transportation, they argued.

Crawford and Norris noted that state lawmakers approved a pay raise for VPSOs last year and that the rural officers now are eligible for the state employee retirement system.

But they also noted that years of legislative budget cuts had reduced the number of VPSO positions from a high of 124 in the 1980s to the current 84 1/2, of which 78 are filled.

That, Crawford said, is disappointing and is a development he didn't imagine in the early years of the program.

Experts hired by the state to analyze policing in Alaska said they found no evidence that off-road villages receive unequal service. William Pelfry, a criminal justice professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Gleason he believes the VPSO program provides ''a set of eyes as well as a problem-solver in the community.''

Pelfry cited a 1995 survey of rural Alaskans, which found that 16.9 percent of them believe crime was greatly or somewhat reduced from in prior years. About 29 percent believed crime was increasing.

He contrasted that sample with polls in other states. In North Carolina, for example, only 2.5 percent felt crime had decreased, with almost 63 percent believing crime was on the rise.

''Folks in rural Alaska and specifically folks in Native villages tend to feel safe,'' Pelfry said.

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