Villages worry about loss of VPSOs

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

PORT GRAHAM (AP) Older people in this remote Kenai Peninsula village can still remember what life was like before Seraphim Meganack put on a brown police uniform.

They remember the drinking parties spilling out of houses, the stupid drownings, the drunken husbands beating wives. They say it was a godsend when the state started up the village public safety officer program. Meganack, a local commercial fisherman, went to work for the state in 1983, providing the first response to trouble.

Meganack didn't exactly clean up the town, village leaders say, but he quieted things down. Counting a few years off to recharge, he has been the local VPSO for 17 years, an unusually long stint in the high-stress job.

''Having someone who could intervene as it's happening and defuse the situation has made a big difference,'' said Jim Miller, who runs the village alcohol program.

The pressures of politics, friends and relatives in a village of 186 can be tough, but the hardest part of the job, Meganack said, was facing down angry people who had been drinking. Sometimes they were armed. The VPSOs do not carry weapons and do not usually enter such situations with any backup.

''I got threatened at one of those parties. It made my hair stand up,'' Meganack said.

Now Port Graham is once again contemplating life without a local cop. Meganack, 51, got his walking papers a week ago as the state cut back the VPSO program again to save money.

The number of villages with funding for VPSOs, which was once 124, will decline from 84 to 69 with the latest cuts. Gov. Frank Murkowski said he picked the three regions with the smallest caseloads: the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Southeast.

The cut, saving $962,000 toward $138 million in vetoes by Murkowski, comes amid of a legal challenge claiming that even with VPSOs in the Bush, Alaska's two-tier law enforcement system is inadequate.

A state judge ruled against the challengers last year, saying the admittedly inferior policing in rural Alaska is the result of distance and logistical challenges, not discrimination against Natives or rural residents. The Alaska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal by the Native American Rights Fund in September.

''This cut is telling rural residents they're not valued as Alaska citizens and the state doesn't see them as equal in needing protection,'' said Karen Lee, program director for the Alaska Native Justice Center, a nonprofit group involved in the lawsuit.

In making the veto last week, the governor suggested Alaska State Troopers could fly in when necessary. In Port Graham that will mean flying in troopers from a Homer post that is already stretched thin. Village chief Pat Norman said he doesn't expect prompt visits for any but the most serious criminal investigations. He's not sure what they're going to do about lesser crimes.

In nearby Nanwalek, currently without a VPSO, it has fallen to village council members to look into vandalism cases and enforce community service sentences, says council chief Emilie Swenning.

Swenning said her council learned last week they had lost their officer when they called an applicant to set up an interview and he told them about the latest cuts. Nanwalek also lost a new ambulance to a capital budget veto.

The VPSO program started in 1980 as a way to supplement law enforcement in remote villages. At its early peak, the program had funding for 124 village officers, who were trained by troopers and carried a wide range of responsibilities, including misdemeanor arrests and search and rescue.

The program has been popular with politicians and troopers, despite its budget struggles. In the past few years, salaries were raised and training and equipment were improved, said Lt. John Glick, a program supervisor with the troopers. Retention of officers in the program, which once saw a 40 percent annual turnover rate, is improving.

The latest cuts are raising similar protests in Southeast communities and also on Kodiak, where the state used to fund five village officers.

Meganack thinks eliminating his job could actually cost the state money, as more highly paid troopers cross the bay to serve routine papers and get involved in cases that could have been defused.

Meganack was paid about $30,000 a year.

''I know how these things work,'' he said of the budget vetoes, disappointment in his voice. ''Then you look at the state giving a $30 million tax cut to oil and gas, and the Anchorage arts council was celebrating in the paper about not getting cut.''

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