JUNEAU – The Alaska House helped strengthen public safety in rural Alaska Thursday when it passed legislation that would update the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program. Senate Bill 81, which passed 34-2, implements seven recommendations that the bipartisan and bicameral VPSO Working Group made in their report, which was adopted on January 24, 2020. VPSOs are essential for serving public safety among our state’s widely dispersed population, and are trained in duties ranging from fire protection, emergency medical assistance, law enforcement, community policing, crime prevention, and search and rescue.
Over the last decade, the VPSO program has faced declining numbers, recruitment and retention challenges, and community needs that have eclipsed the responsibilities of officers. In 2019, a Joint House/Senate Working group was tasked with drafting policy recommendations to meet these challenges. SB 81 implements seven of those recommendations, including clearly identifying the law enforcement duties and powers of officers, increasing programmatic and budgetary flexibility for tribal partners of the program, and formalizing the background check process for applicants.
“When one in three Alaska communities do not have any form of law enforcement, it is all the more important we empower our Village Public Safety Officer for success,” said Representative Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel), who carried the legislation on the House floor. “We have a duty to make sure every Alaskan feels safe, no matter where they call home, and this brings us closer to that goal.”
“SB 81 is the product of years of hard work done, starting with the Joint House/Senate VPSO Working Group, to find recommendations on how to address the crisis of public safety in rural Alaska,” said Senator Donny Olson (D-Golovin), the sponsor of the bill. “I’m happy to see this bill head to the Governor’s desk, and to have it pass on such a day of reflection and awareness as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day makes it all the more meaningful.”
“The passage of the bill today was in one way a small step forward, but a large step in recognizing the challenges that exist in the VPSO program,” said Representative Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham).
SB 81 now goes to the Governor’s desk for his signature.