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Lawmakers consider giving guns to village public safety officers

Casey Grove
istockphoto

A Village Public Safety Officer killed in the line of duty this March in the Southwest village of Manokotak might not have died if Alaska law had allowed him to carry a firearm to protect himself like just about everyone else in the state, his widow said at a recent legislative hearing in Anchorage.

Luan Madole’s testimony at Thursday’s hearing -- which included a voicing of support from the commissioner of public safety as well as a former commissioner -- was perhaps the most compelling so far in the ongoing debate about arming some 120 VPSOs flung across the state. On March 19, Madole lost her husband of more than 30 years, Thomas Madole, when a reportedly suicidal man shot the VPSO, who was running for cover, according to the charges.

With draft legislation to allow local governments the option to arm VPSOs already written, little opposition has arisen to the idea so far. But lawmakers are still collecting information on what the proposal would mean and what it would cost, in terms of equipment and training, to put guns in the hands of the officers and allowing them to make life-or-death decisions.

VPSO's responsibilities increase

VPSOs are paid for through state grants to nonprofit regional corporations or municipalities, which employ the officers, and they are trained and given the authority of a police officer by the state Department of Public Safety. Unlike Village Police Officers -- hired, trained and authorized by local governments -- the state officers are not allowed to carry guns. Using lethal force was not included in the job description when the VPSO program began.

Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters, who started his career in law enforcement as a VPSO, told legislators the responsibility of the officers has expanded since the program’s beginning in the late 1970s. At first, Masters said, VPSOs dealt with general public safety concerns: fires, boating safety, basic medical assistance. But their law enforcement role has grown over the years, Masters said.

And attacks on all law enforcement officers seem to be on the upswing, Masters said. While training for the most-tense situations has evolved, those sworn to protect the villages “just don't have the tools" they need, he added.

Masters said the 10-week academy would need to add three to five days of extra firearms training. Equipment and liability insurance costs would go up, he said, but the thought is not to arm all of the VPSOs at once.

“This is the route I think we need to go,” Masters said. “I think it’s time.”

Walt Monegan, former Public Safety commissioner and current director of the Alaska Native Justice Center, said training for officers on their own in the villages would be key to successfully introducing firearms.

“As an Anchorage police officer, I was spoiled because if there was some big guy that wanted to rearrange me somehow, I could just get on the radio and say, 'Hey, send me a lot of guys who look like me,’” Monegan said.

VPSOs do not have that kind of support, something Monegan said he respected. They would have to know what to do alone in similar confrontations, he said.

“Overall, certainly I think it'll be up to the communities, but giving them this option is certainly empowering,” Monegan said. “But for the long-term health, the more we can do to empower those communities, the better they will be and the safer they will be. And this is certainly a piece."

Concerns about officer-involved shootings may arise

Giving VPSOs guns will not solve all their problems, some at the hearing warned. Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Native Association CEO, said hard drugs are still making their way into villages. Outside influences like that can’t be forgotten, Andersen said.

Concerns about officer-involved shootings may come up when the bills are actually before the Legislature, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said in a later phone interview. It would be ideal to have a fully-trained Alaska State Trooper in every community if the state could afford it, Josephson said, likening the state’s funding of public safety in rural communities to the debate about whether rural schools get enough money.

“Some of this is like, well, out of sight out of mind. And what happens is crises happen in the Bush (and) have to be responded to, rather than having somebody tamp down situations before they arise or become worse,” Josephson said. “It’s money, and it’s public employees, and some people don’t like public employees.”

But giving the VPSOs the ability to carry firearms is a “no-brainer,” said Josephson, who expects a bill to pass.

It cannot happen soon enough, Luan Madole said. The officers’ lives are important enough, she said, to change an outdated law that makes them just about the only Alaskans restricted from carrying firearms, aside from felons, drunks and juveniles.

“This was an advantage to every person in Manokotak and a real disadvantage to Tom. Every call, he wondered if it would be his last. He went to protect a village that did not give him the option to let him protect himself.”

“I have to be Tom’s voice,” Luan said. “There has to be a change before this happens to another family."

Contact Casey Grove at casey(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @kcgrove