Villages upset over VPSO cuts

Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto of money for village public safety officers in more than a dozen villages will leave them subject to higher crime rates, according to residents.

Rural residents in Southeast, Kodiak and Southcentral Alaska are affected by the veto, which will save the state nearly $1 million a year.

Murkowski said Alaska State Troopers will provide the first response in 15 targeted villages.

Residents of Pelican, Old Harbor, Chenega and other off-road communities say they will pay the price through higher drunken driving and domestic violence rates.

''I just don't know what we're going to do,'' said Terri Schomer, chair of the public safety committee in Pelican, a community accessible only by boat and floatplane 80 miles west of Juneau. ''Unless there's a murder, (troopers) don't come out here.''

The village public safety officer program started in 1980, in part to ease the demand for troopers to visit remote villages. Village officers are trained by the troopers and act as first responders for all kinds of situations, from arresting belligerent drunks to fighting fires to searches, rescues and emergency medical service.

''I've got a closetful of hats,'' said Port Lions VPSO Sgt. Brad Ames.

A community must provide an office, telephone and holding cell. The state currently funds 84.5 positions, channeling the money through regional nonprofit Native corporations.

Murkowski last week eliminated funding for 15 VPSOs. Eleven positions are filled.

Murkowski chose those regions to cut, he said in a press release, because they report the lowest activity and crime rates.

Blain Garrett, village officer Thorne Bay, a Southeast logging community, said two troopers assigned to Prince of Wales Island are busy already.

''It's going to be tough for them to pick up the caseloads,'' he said.

Like most VPSOs, Garrett is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said. ''I'm like a police force of one in a town of 500.''

Many VPSOs teach public safety in the local school, including boat, fire and gun safety. Troopers agreed that the agency cannot replace every aspect of the village officers but said rural residents will be protected.

''They're not going to be left out in the lurch,'' said Maj. Joe Masters, deputy director of the troopers. ''If a victim calls, we're going to respond.''

But the number of troopers has not increased, which means the agency will be stretched thinner to cover for the village officers, Masters said.

Murkowski suggested in his veto address that communities seek federal or other funds to pay for community police.

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