A recently completed Justice Center study of villages in the Bristol Bay region indicates that much of the work of Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) involves incidents unrelated to crime, thus reinforcing the need for VPSO training in a broad spectrum of public safety services. The following article provides an overview of Alaska rural public safety programs and presents the results of the recent study.
While the state of Alaska attempts under its constitution to provide a comprehensive, centralized system for public safety and justice to all its residents, villages of rural Alaska offer a formidable challenge to any effort to provide public services. Difficulty of access makes providing public services to the remote areas of Alaska an expensive and time consuming venture. The more than 200 villages, which primarily exhibit a subsistence lifestyle, lack the tax bases required to provide for their own community and public safety services.
Since the mid-1960s two rural justice programs have been developed by the Alaska State Troopers (AST) in an effort to meet the unique public safety needs of rural Alaskan communities: the Village Police Officer Program and the Village Public Safety Officer Program.
Village Police Officer Program
The Village Police Officer (VPO) Program was initiated, with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to provide law enforcement services to rural communities. However, when the program was implemented village police officers found that they were frequently called upon to perform various other public safety tasks and that their duties were not necessarily confined to law enforcement.
As Village Police Officers assumed their duties they became overwhelmed with the responsibility of providing the entire spectrum of public services to their respective villages, with the result that the program began to erode, and the Village Police Officer Program was replaced by the Village Public Safety Officer Program. (Not all Alaskan villages elected to replace their VPOs with VPSOs and some villages are still served exclusively by VPOs. In addition, many villages have retained a VPO position which functions in conjunction with the VPSO.)
Village Public Safety Officer Program
According to a report prepared in 1979 (Messick, "Village Safety Officer Program," Alaska Justice Forum, Vol. 3, No. 6), in 1979 rural Alaska had the distinction of having the worst record for public safety of any of the 50 states. It had the highest per capita loss of life and property due to accidental fires in the western hemisphere, suffered the highest per capita loss of life due to boating and water-related accidents of any state and was one of the most isolated areas of the country for obtaining emergency medical and law enforcement assistance. Rural Alaska led the state, and possibly the country, in the number of search and rescue missions and had the fewest local government resources to deal with total public safety problems. The Department of Public Safety recognized that there was a need for a wider range of public safety services in the villages than was then provided by the Village Police Officer Program.
This realization, coupled with the decline of the Village Police Officer Program, led to a proposal for a new public safety program tailored specifically for bush Alaska—the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) Program. This program provided state funding for Alaska Native villages to hire their own public safety officers, who would assist the Troopers in handling public safety related problems. The Department of Public Safety exercises oversight for the VPSO program. The concept of the VPSO program was to train an officer in five public safety areas: fire suppression, law enforcement, search and rescue, water safety and emergency medical services. It was thought that this type of training would provide the VPSO with the rudimentary tools required to handle most incidents which are serious threats to life and property in the bush.
Currently, all Village Public Safety Officer recruits must pass a six-week resident training course held at the Department of Public Safety Academy in Sitka, Alaska. The basic VPSO course includes training in emergency trauma and treatment, procedural law, search and rescue, water safety, and arrest. Participants must also complete a required physical fitness program. New recruits subsequently must pass a two-week firefighting course held in Anchorage. In addition, each VPSO is required to attend advanced fire training. Regional training, in one week increments, is also mandatory for VPSOs unless excused by the department training coordinator. Once the trained VPSO returns to his village he is assigned an "Oversight Trooper" (a commissioned Alaska State Trooper) to act as mentor and to provide technical assistance and on-the-job training. In high risk or complex situations, the VPSO stays in communication with the oversight trooper and takes immediate action as prescribed by the trooper to keep the situation under control until the trooper arrives. Oversight visits are made by the trooper approximately once every two months. During the visits the trooper provides on-the-job training in criminal investigation, fire safety, and other areas in which the VPSO may be having problems.
Justice Center Study
In spring 1991 the Justice Center undertook a study of the role of the Village Public Safety Officer to evaluate incidents, both criminal and noncriminal, reported by the VPSOs of 13 Alaska villages to the Alaska State Troopers (AST) over a two year period (1989-1990). The data were gathered from the Alaska Department of Public Safety's computerized records system by an ad hoc program specifically created for this extraction. The program requested all cases reported for each of the villages for 1989 and 1990.
Each VPSO reports criminal and noncriminal activities in much the same way as an Alaska State Trooper does. The VPSO calls his trooper detachment, is issued a case number for an event and subsequently fills out a police report. The reports are then categorized by an AST activity code, processed and entered into the DPS data base. (The willingness or ability of a VPSO to obtain a case number and report an incident or offense is a major source of data gaps in bush justice research. Historically VPSOs have also been known to report only the most serious events to AST.)
Each event assigned a case number by AST in 1989 and 1990 was included in the data. The ad hoc program listed each village by name, case number, offense or incident code, date and time of occurrence and case status. If there were any questions, AST activity identification codes were used to separate criminal from noncriminal activity, and the data were treated accordingly. A brief description of each event was provided. Examples of noncriminal activities included death notifications, search and rescue requests, security checks, and drownings. Criminal events include alcohol offenses, assaults, drug offenses and theft.
All 13 villages examined were in the Bristol Bay area and their public safety needs were provided directly by a VPSO. Village population ranged from 33 to 391 full-time residents.
The villages differ with regard to the role played by the VPSO. One village may require one area of emphasis, while another requires something entirely different. These findings, based on aggregate data, are not representative of all Alaska villages; however, they do provide a means to evaluate the general criminal and noncriminal activity of the Village Public Safety Officers.
The aggregate data indicate that for 1989 and 1990 a total of 1928 cases were reported by VPSOs in the 13 villages. Of these reported cases 1138 (59%) were noncriminal in nature and the remaining 790 (41%) were classified as criminal events. In 1989 377 criminal cases were reported and, in 1990, 413. In 1989 752 noncriminal events were reported and, in 1990, 386. Figure 1 displays the percentages of criminal and noncriminal events for 1989 and 1990 for each of the 13 villages, as well as percentages for 1989, 1990, and the aggregate for both years. (Actual figures are found in Table 2).
The three most frequently reported noncriminal VPSO activities (N=335; see Table 1) were requests for patrol (10%; N=114), checks on security (9.8%; N=112) and checks on the welfare of villagers (9.6%; N=109). (These aggregate figures represent all 13 villages for both 1989 and 1990.) In 1989 these three types of events represented approximately 36.3 per cent of the VPSO noncriminal related activities.
In 1990 the noncriminal events reported dropped dramatically, by approximately one half—from 752 in 1989 to 386 in 1990. The three most frequently reported noncriminal service events in 1990 changed as well: checking on the welfare of villagers (9.8%; N=38), assistance to another justice agency, such as verifying the location of a probationer (8.5%; N=33) and providing transportation (8.3%; N=32). These three incident types accounted for approximately 26.7 per cent of noncriminal incidents in 1990.There is no known reason for the dramatic decrease in reported noncriminal events from 1989 to 1990. However, of the five most frequently reported events in 1989 (patrol requests, security checks, welfare checks, assists inside Alaska and fire services), there were 267 more reported in 1989 than in 1990. The decrease in these five events alone accounts for approximately three quarters of the difference between the two years.
According to a representative of the Alaska State Troopers, there have not been any policy changes or operational directives issued to VPSOs in any Alaska village in regards to reporting or classifying incidents that could account for the large fluctuation in the data. The AST spokesperson added that there has been little turnover among VPSOs in the Bristol Bay area and that he did not believe that unfamiliarity with AST reporting procedures could account for the decrease in reported events. Any attempt to explain the aberration based solely on two years' data would be purely speculative.
However, it is worth noting that the AST spokesperson also stated that there were approximately 14,000 noncriminal events reported statewide by all VPSOs in 1990. The three most frequently reported noncriminal events statewide were patrol requests, security checks and animal-related offenses and complaints.
The aggregate noncriminal service activities of the VPSOs in the 13 villages are ordered by rank in Table 2. Table 2 also indicates the number of times each incident was reported to AST by one of the VPSOs in 1989 and 1990. Across the bottom of the table the aggregate number of noncriminal events for each village is reported and contrasted with the number of aggregate criminal events reported for each village in 1989 and 1990. As can be seen in Table 2, the number of noncriminal events reported declined significantly in 1990. However, the criminal events reported increased from 377 in 1989 to 413 in 1990 (approximately 10%). Since this was exploratory research it was not possible to tell if the decrease in noncriminal events and increase in criminal events indicate a trend.
It is also unknown if this proportional division of VPSO activities is unique to the Bristol Bay area or if it also holds true for the rest of the state. This study indicates that more longitudinal research into the nonenforcement role of the Village Public Safety Officer is warranted and should be conducted on a much broader geographic base.
Larry Trostle is an assistant professor with the Justice Center; Darren McShea and Russell Perras are recent Justice graduates of University of Alaska Anchorage.