AVCP talks Public Safety to new House Tribal Affairs Committee

by Azara Mohammadi

The Alaska House of Representatives passed a resolution (37-1) in favor of creating the first Tribal Affairs Committee, chaired by our own Representative Tiffany Zulkosky. This special committee was championed by the first Alaska Native Speaker of the House, Representative Bryce Edgmon, of Dillingham. Their first meeting was held on March 7, 2019.

As a single, unified body the Committee is advancing understandings of tribal relationships by cutting across several State departments and many Alaska Tribes. Zulkosky told Kevin Baird with the Juneau Empire that she hopes the committee will help the State maintain solvency for programs that have direct impacts on Tribes, while the State struggles with this current fiscal crisis.

The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) Chief Executive Officer, Vivian Korthuis, was invited to speak to the Tribal Affairs Committee at a hearing on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The focus was public safety. The essential rural Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) Program is facing budget cuts, some for fiscal year 2019 implemented a few months ago and others added through Governor Dunleavy’s proposed state budget for fiscal year 2020.

Korthuis stressed in her remarks that public safety has been identified as the number one priority of the AVCP region through tribal caucuses at the last three AVCP annual conventions. The projects AVCP has completed toward addressing public safety has put the YK Region in a position to effectively communicate a holistic snapshot of the current state of public safety at all levels – governmental, regional, and local.

Korthuis provided an overview on the state of public safety in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta, using information gathered in the summer of 2018 by AVCP through the following:

1. Statewide VPSO Strategic Plan (May 2018)

2. AVCP Public Safety Facilities Assessment (May – June 2018)

3. Public Safety Summit (August 1 – 2, 2018)

As part of the Public Safety Facilities Assessment, AVCP found that 88% of the YK Delta communities have no public safety officer presence. There are currently 6 VPSOs in the YK Delta region, meaning roughly only one officer per eight communities. Korthuis’ presentation to the Tribal Affairs Committee distinguished the four types of law enforcement officers available to rural Alaskans.

1. Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) Employed by: regional Native nonprofit corporations, a tribe, and a borough; requiring a memorandum of agreement between the nonprofit corporation, DPS, and local governing body (tribe or municipal government). Funded by: DPS (excludes facilities, housing and/or vehicles) Training: 15-week ALET Academy.

2. Village Police Officers (VPOs) Employed by: municipal government. Funded by: city government. Training: 2-week academy sponsored by AST, when available. VPOs are not compensated for trainings time and must be certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council (APSC).

3. Tribal Police Officers (TPOs) Employed by: tribal governments. Funded by: tribes. Training: 2-week academy sponsored by AST, when available. TPOs are not compensated for trainings time.

4. Alaska State Troopers (AST) Employed by: State of Alaska. Funded by: DPS. Training: 15-week ALET Academy.

Since the 2013 death of VPSO Thomas Madole in the line of duty, VPSOs have been required to be able to be armed. Although the vast majority of VPSOs do not currently carry firearms while on duty, they still must meet the AST arming requirements. The arming requirement means VPSOs must now complete the 15-week ALET Academy in Sitka, Alaska, alongside all Troopers.

This requirement includes more stringent background checks, which can take up to five months to complete, in cooperation with grantees and the DPS. Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price believes the VPSO Program has always be “hiccupped with challenges,” but the “significant challenge” came through the arming requirement.

On December 5, 2018, Governor Dunleavy appointed Amanda Price as Alaska Commission of Public Safety, replacing former Commissioner Walt Monegan. Price was part of Dunleavy’s campaign staff and a former senior advisor to Governor Bill Walker on violent crime response and prevention. She was also the executive director of Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) and led the American Heart Association and Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Alaska chapters.

On March 4, Commissioner Price spoke to the Senate Finance Public Safety Subcommittee, available for public viewing on 360north.org. In response to a question about her plans for increasing VPSO hires, Price states, “There are inherent structural challenges with the program. I think it’s the structural challenges that we need to address and some of those structural challenges are returning back to the statue as written. We’re operating outside of the confines of the statue that governs the program right now.”

In fiscal year 2020, Price believes returning to “the spirit of the statute” and allowing rural communities off of the road system to hire first responders (as opposed to ASTs) is where the “significant challenge came into play for this program.”

AVCP held the VPSO first contract with the State. Since 1967, AVCP has seen the turn of every evolution of the program – most notably, the arming requirement that Commission Price cites. Korthuis outlined the subsequent recruitment and retention challenges in her presentation to the Tribal Affairs Committee. Korthuis stressed that the State of Alaska “has a responsibility for public safety in our communities” and that the VPSO program is a “critical part of the State of Alaska’s responsibility to provide equitable safety to all Alaskans.” She believes establishing and maintaining the partnership between Tribes and the State of Alaska is essential to public safety.

To summarize Korthuis’ presentation, AVCP advocates for the State to retain and fund the VPSO program and support the 2018 Statewide VPSO Strategic Plan. This plan was drafted over a 3-day session in partnership with the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS), and all statewide VPSO Program grantees. The priorities of the VPSO Strategic Plan clearly align with the Commissioner’s understanding of the Program, as outlined above.

The VPSO Strategic Plan identifies priorities like clearly defining VPSO roles and responsibilities and reviewing the programmatic governance, explicitly mentioning the possibility of moving the VPSO Program directly under the Commissioner of Public Safety. Over a one to three-year period, Korthuis advocates for the follow-through of the path established through the VPSO Statewide Strategic Plan.