The Village Public Safety Officer program began formally in 1981, filling 52 positions throughout the state. In August 2000, there were 71 VPSOs serving 70 villages. An additional 53 villages have authorized VPSO positions which are vacant.
VPSOs participate in an initial nine-week training course conducted at the Public Safety Academy in Sitka. The course covers five areas: law enforcement, fire fighting, search and rescue, water safety, and emergency medical services. In addition to this initial training the officers receive yearly refresher courses conducted on a regional basis.
The program was designed to facilitate local control over public safety services, but management authority actually resides with three entities: the village itself, the regional nonprofit Native corporation and the Alaska State Troopers. Each entity has specific responsibilities with regard to the program. The program receives all of its financial support from the state, and all program costs are contained in a single line item in the Alaska State Troopers' budget. The FY01 budget for the VPSO program is approximately $7.5 million. A portion of this covers the cost of the troopers' oversight administration of the program, and the remainder goes to the regional non-profits for the day-to-day operational costs of the program.
In addition to providing training and some equipment, the Alaska State Troopers serve as field supervisors of the VPSOs. Each VPSO is assigned an "Oversight Trooper"—a commissioned Alaska State Trooper who provides technical assistance, guidance and training from a centralized location which may be several hundred miles away from the village. The program calls for regular oversight visits by the assigned trooper to provide on-the-job training. In complex situations, including all felony cases, the VPSO stays in communication with the trooper, taking action to control the situation until the trooper can get to the site. VPSOs do not carry firearms on duty. Currently there are 36 Oversight Troopers.
Although the field supervision is provided by the Alaska State Troopers, the VPSOs are actually employees of the regional nonprofit Native corporations—they are paid through the corporation. Each nonprofit has a VPSO Coordinator who administers the program for the corporation. The position is responsible for payroll management, insurance and retirement plans, maintenance of personnel records and the expenditure of grant funds.
Village control over VPSOs stems from two sources. First, villages have the choice of participating in the program; in other words, a village cannot have an officer imposed upon it. The other source of village control is the power to select and terminate officers. Villages exercise ultimate discretion over who serves as a VPSO, although hiring and firing are generally conducted in consultation with the non-profits and the Alaska State Troopers. The villages provide office space, telephone service, a holding cell and any equipment not provided by the Alaska State Troopers.