The Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program was designed to meet the public safety needs of indigenous rural Alaska communities by employing people within their own communities to work in conjunction with the Department of Public Safety. The VPSOs are trained by the Alaska State Troopers at their academy in Sitka. VPSO training focuses on five basic public safety areas: fire suppression, law enforcement, search and rescue, water safety and emergency medical services.
An article in the last edition of the Alaska Justice Forum, "The Nonenforcement Role of the VPSO" (Winter 1992), examined data related to VPSO activity in enforcement and nonenforcement areas from thirteen Bristol Bay villages. This article will present parallel statewide data on enforcement and nonenforcement activities, regional data from the Bethel area and, again, from Bristol Bay.
Since 1980 the VPSO program has grown from a small pilot program of approximately 19 officers to 125 positions. Although the terms problem-oriented policing and community-oriented policing had not yet been coined at the time that the VPSO program was designed, in many ways it appears to have been a forerunner of this type of policing. Community-oriented policing encompasses: (1) involvement of the community to accomplish police responsibilities; (2) permanent geographical assignment of officers to a neighborhood to facilitate better relations; (3) establishment of police priorities based on community needs and desires; and (4) allocation of police resources. Although the VPSO program does not include all these aspects precisely, it has nonetheless been an innovative approach to policing in Alaska.
The VPSO Program in the 1990s
Over the years modifications in the VPSO training agenda have resulted in more attention being devoted to community-oriented activities and less to law enforcement. Did these modifications in training result from the reality of VPSO activity in the villages? Were they predicated on supposition or based on some other variables within the village and/or nonprofit corporation power structure? What bearing do they have on any desire to abandon or revise the current VPSO program?
Recently some questions have been raised about the program's viability in its current form. If modifications in the VPSO program are proposed they should be based at least partially on quantitative data reflecting how the program meets contemporary community needs. One of the first issues that must be addressed in answering these questions is the proportional division of VPSO activity in rural Alaska.
One of the habitual problems immediately confronting anyone who looks at public safety activity in rural Alaska is the lack of precise documentation. Record-keeping has always been problematic in rural Alaska. A problem associated with the data that do exist is that there are no consistent reporting standards throughout the state, no consistent tabulation of data by categories and time frames and no standard for reporting rates of activities. (It should be noted that the Department of Public Safety, Alaska State Troopers-Rural Enforcement, is currently making a concentrated effort, with a noticeable degree of success, to correct some of these difficulties. It is also incumbent upon the academic community to address these problems in use of the data. In the future it might be productive to examine data in light of the five categories covered in training, if the documentation permits.)
The data presented in this article cover two different time frames: (1) the calendar year 1990 and (2) the fiscal year 1991 (July 1, 1990 - June 30, 1991). Data from the Bristol Bay area and the Bethel region will be compared with statewide data.
In examining aggregate village data it can be difficult to classify a reported incident. For example, does drinking in public require law enforcement-related activity, or is any action on the part of an officer more a social and/or civil activity? One must know if the village is statutorily dry or not to make the proper distinction between an enforcement and nonenforcement activity, and this distinction is impossible to make if one is looking at aggregate state or regional data. Therefore, some activities in the data under discussion may inadvertently be misclassified. In order to address concerns that some categories may contain both criminal and noncriminal activities, the categories themselves have been given the much broader designations enforcement-related activity and nonenforcement-related activity rather than criminal and noncriminal. While this will not alleviate all of the ambiguity, it is hoped that incorrect or inadvertent classifications will be minimized.
Table 1 displays the top twenty nonenforcement-related activities for VPSOs in 1990 for the entire state of Alaska, for the Bethel region and for thirteen villages in the Bristol Bay area. The state and Bristol Bay data are based on figures for the 1990 calendar year, and the Bethel region data are based on FY 1990 figures.
Table 1 displays the top twenty categories of nonenforcement activities engaged in by all VPSOs in calendar year 1990. The data in Table 1 indicate that the top five statewide nonenforcement activity categories (security check, patrol request, assist inside Alaska, public assist and public appearance) are identical to the top five categories reported for VPSOs in the Bethel region (patrol request, security check, public appearance, public assist and assist inside Alaska), although the rank ordering of the activities is not the same. However, in the Bristol Bay area villages only two of the top five categories (assist inside Alaska (n=33, 4.13%) and public assist (n=31, 3.88%) ) are the same. The remaining three activity categories for the Bristol Bay region (subpoena/summons served, provide transportation and welfare check) are rank ordered 7, 10 and 14 respectively in the statewide data.
Within the twenty categories of activities the Bethel region parallels overall statewide VPSO activity in seven of the top ten categories (70%), and in 13 of the top 20 (65%). The Bristol Bay area reflects similarities in seven of the top ten categories (70%), and in 14 of the top 20 (70%).
It is interesting to note that on a statewide basis the actual number of the top five nonenforcement activities far exceeds the number of VPSO enforcement activities. In fact, the number of the fifth-ranked nonenforcement activity alone - public appearance (n=645, 4.6%) - is more than double that of the highest-ranked enforcement activity, assault (n=316, 2.26%). Table 2 provides statewide data for both nonenforcement and enforcement activities.
The data in Table 1 further indicate that statewide VPSO activity in 1990 was strongly skewed towards nonenforcement activity (89.84%). In addition, Table 1 reflects that VPSO activity in the Bethel region was strongly skewed towards nonenforcement activity as well (77%). However, the 1990 data for the Bristol Bay area indicate a much more equal division of activity, with enforcement activity exceeding nonenforcement duties by approximately 5.4 per cent (52.69% and 47.31% respectively.) However, if one examines the 1989 data and the aggregate 1989/1990 data for the Bristol Bay villages, nonenforcement activity predominates:
Although there are some similarities among regions for the levels and types of VPSO nonenforcement related activity reflected here, no definite conclusions should be drawn. This study cannot be assumed to apply to all villages and/or regions of the state. The author readily acknowledges problems with the data: the study looks at only two regions within the state, compares data from two different, although similar, time frames, and does not take into consideration regional or cultural differences. However, the similarities can not be ignored either. The intent of this preliminary study was to determine several things: (1) what do the VPSOs do or report that they do; (2) how is their work load divided; and (3) are there any similarities between the overall levels of statewide activity and the various regional areas? It is apparent from the data presented here that there does appear to be a collective emphasis on nonenforcement VPSO activity, but this finding should not be interpreted as denying the serious impact of crime in rural Alaska.
Another important consideration not addressed here is the actual amount of time devoted to these various activities. For example, as noted above, there were approximately 645 public appearances made by VPSOs. This is twice the number of the most common statewide criminal activity handled by VPSOs (316 assaults). The number of activities alone does not reflect the time required to accomplish each task or the gravity of effort involved. Consequently, although it provides some information, this examination of the number of events does not tell us everything about the division of VPSO time and labor between enforcement and nonenforcement activity. What is needed before changes are considered is a more complete evaluation of the VPSO program as it exists today. The data presented here suggest that the program is doing what it was designed to do and that a continued orientation to community policing is warranted.
Lawrence C. Trostle is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.