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Alaska's top cop, Inupiaq Joe Masters aims to improve village safety

Julie Fate SullivanFirst Alaskans
Loren Holmes photo

Joseph Nashalook Masters was only 18 years old when he found himself face-to-face with an intoxicated man bearing a shotgun. As a first-year Village Public Officer in Unalakleet, Masters and his VPO partner had answered a call for a domestic violence case. When they cautiously entered the house, what they found was his partner’s relative, pointing a gun at them.

“We had to calm him down,” recalled Masters of that adrenaline-filled day. “We had to talk him into putting the gun down. It wasn't until afterward my legs started shaking.”

Twenty-nine years later, the Inupiaq-born Masters is still at the front lines of law enforcement in Alaska, this time as Commissioner of Public Safety. And instead of walking a beat, Masters is quietly and consistently spearheading one of the most important developments going on in rural Alaska – ensuring that every community that wants a law enforcement officer gets one.

The plan is part of Gov. Sean Parnell’s “Choose Respect” campaign, with the 10-year goal of adding 15 new Village Public Safety Officers a year to rural Alaska communities. But the energy and know-how behind the effort is Masters’. As the only Alaskan to have served in every single branch of law enforcement in the state, Masters intimately knows the obstacles that Alaska Natives face when it comes to ensuring the safety of their residents. And it’s this achingly personal perspective that gives Masters the determination and experience to make this initiative work.

Gap in rural Alaska

“How can victims be safe in their communities if there’s nobody there to even take a report?” Masters asked. “My entire career I've seen a gap in services in rural Alaska and I've always felt that we could do more.”

Speaking from his office overlooking Tudor Road at the Alaska State Troopers’ Headquarters in Anchorage – where Masters oversees 315 troopers, a department of 950 employees and a budget of $200 million – he recalled his years of service as a village police officer in Western Alaska. Pay was dismally low, there were no benefits, and housing was inadequate. The village police were notoriously overworked and underpaid – the same as when Masters took the helm as commissioner in 2008.

“There was still the same type of issues that we’re battling today in rural Alaska: alcohol, family violence, sexual assault. It was all happening back then as well,” Masters said.

Masters is as humble as he is experienced. His office bears few signs of the many awards and accomplishments he has earned. A family photo with his wife Michelle and three grown children graces the wall, across from a mahogany plaque bearing the badges of all the police divisions he has served under – VPO, VPSO, Unalaska Municipal Officer and Alaska State Trooper. But of all his honors, it is a small wooden plaque with simple brown inscription that has the most significance to Masters – the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Glenn Godfrey Law Enforcement Award, which he received a year ago.

“That award is probably the most important that I've ever gotten, “Masters said. “It’s recognition from the Native community that what I’m doing is meaningful to them.”

Masters first learned that he had been nominated for the award by accident, when he was serving on a nominee reviewing committee for AFN. When he recognized his name on the roster of candidates, he immediately tried to withdraw his nomination, said Gail Schubert, president of Bering Straits Native Corp., which nominated him for the award.

“He’s a really humble person. He just doesn't seek the spotlight,” said Schubert, who also serves with Masters on the boards of the Alaska Native Justice Center and the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission. “He really focuses on just getting the job done.“

Better pay, better training

Under Masters’ leadership, the VPSO program has witnessed the kind of overhaul that villages have been desperately requesting for years, and that rural legislators and his predecessor, former Commissioner Walter Monegan, have worked toward as well. VPSOs now get paid $22 an hour, up from just $17 three years ago. For the first time, they now receive liability insurance, as well as longevity and step increases. VPSOs get 10 weeks of training now, up from the six to eight weeks that used to be offered. Masters is pushing to further increase VPSO and VPO training to 12 weeks, so it would equal municipal police officer training. VPOs only receive two weeks of training, and that’s not enough, Masters said.

“We’re doing some unique things that we have never done in the past with the VPSO program,” said Capt. Steven Arlow, VPSO commander, adding that they are now exploring a two-week-on, two-week-off rotation in some communities where VPSOs are difficult to hire. “I really feel we’re bringing up the quality of the training and equipment. You get what you invest.”

This spring, the program witnessed its highest number of graduates in 30 years, with 28 VPSOs and two VPOs completing the Public Safety Training Academy in Sitka. Since then, the VPSOs have since been posted in 25 communities, with the highest number in the Western Alaska region. Studies show that when a VPSO is hired in a community, the rate of serious physical injury is reduced 40 percent, while the prosecution rate for a sexual assault is three and a half times higher, Masters said.

VPOs are hired by the village to perform the duties of police officers and generally receive limited training, about two weeks. Most VPO departments are funded from a village's revenue or from federal grants, usually from the Department of Justice. A lot of the departments employ VPOs either on a part time basis or seasonally, though some have full-time work.

VPSOs are employees of the local regional nonprofit organization, contracted by the state troopers to administer the VPSO program in their region.

Duties can be very similar in regard to investigation of misdemeanor crimes and village ordinance violations. However VPSOs also work with search and rescue, emergency management services and fire departments in their villages. VPOs generally do not.

In addition, new Alaska State Trooper positions have been added in Bethel, Kotzebue, and Selawik, as well another trooper for rural areas outside of Fairbanks, to focus on supporting VPSOs.

“For every 15 VPSOs, we’re asking for one trooper position as well, specifically dedicated to working with the VPSOs and communities,” Masters said. “My philosophy is if you want effective law enforcement, you’ve got to have both trooper and VPSO.”

'Walked in their shoes'

All this couldn’t be accomplished without the support of the Native nonprofit organizations and village and tribal councils that manage the program, as well as crucial funding by the Alaska State Legislature, Masters said. In 2008, there were only 46 VPSOs in rural Alaska. By 2011, there was funding for 101 positions, with 88 of those filled in 74 rural communities. This spring, the Alaska Legislature voted to approve funding for 15 new positions in 2013, which will bring the number of VPSOs to 116. The Legislature also approved $2 million over the past two years, and another $1 million in 2013, to assist villages in building better VPSO housing.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue,” Masters said, adding that a “lot of great people” have been tirelessly working together to get results. “Everyone is on board to make this work.”

The restructuring of pay and benefits have made a difference, with recruitment and retention improving in portions of the state, said Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, one of the many rural legislators who has been working for years to obtain more funding for law enforcement in the villages. Several years ago, Olson’s hometown of Golovin didn’t have a VPSO. Now it does.

“He’s the best person for the job,” Olson said of Masters. “He’s a very compassionate person who is a consensus builder. He’s walked in their shoes and he’s able to identify with the VPSOs.”

Serendipitous beginnings

Masters was born to an Inupiaq mother, Lena Gonangon, who fell in love with a Greek-American airman stationed outside of her hometown of Unalakleet, back when it served as a Cold War aircraft early-warning site. They married and moved to Glendale Air Force Base in Arizona, where Masters and his twin brother, Christopher, were born.

“I’m part Inupiaq, part Air Force,” Masters says with a chuckle, noting that he is the older twin, born 15 minutes before his brother.

By the time he was 1, Masters’ parents had divorced. His newly single mother packed up her twin boys and their older brother, Nicholas, and moved back to Alaska to start a new life. They settled in Seldovia, where she remarried a fisherman. Masters’ early years became a tangle of moves between the fishing towns of Seldovia, Unalaska and later, Illinois, his stepfather’s childhood home.

“In retrospect, I had been absent from my Native cultural side,” Masters said. He believes his mother had been trying to distance her children from a family atmosphere rife with alcoholism and violence, “to protect us from problems from abuse.”

They moved once more to Unalaska, where Masters graduated from high school in 1982. His stepfather urged him to consider a career in the Air Force. Instead, Masters serendipitously stumbled upon a temporary job at the police station in Unalaska, as a night dispatcher and a correctional officer, to “basically commandeer the people who were in jail,” he said.

Back to his roots

That temporary job became a stepping stone to other positions, first as a VPO and then as a VPSO in his mother’s home village, Unalakleet. Going back to Unalakleet brought him back to his Inupiaq roots – he is the descendent of Chief Nashalook, the last traditional chief of Unalakleet. It also opened his eyes to the harsh realities of being a village police officer in Western Alaska.

“There were only three times in my career that I felt were lethal situations,” Masters said. “All three of those happened prior to my becoming a trooper.”

Masters received encouragement from the elders in Unalakleet. And despite the dangers, the work was exciting to him. He moved on to become a municipal police officer in Unalaska, earning his dive rescue certification and relishing the boomtown atmosphere of the crabbing industry – as well as fighting the Wild West-style crime that came with it. An Alaska State Trooper noticed his proclivity to law enforcement and encouraged Masters to apply early to the Alaska State Trooper Academy.

At the age of 21, Masters became one of the youngest Alaskans to don the trooper’s Stetson hat. He went on to serve as a trooper in Fairbanks, Sand Point and Anchorage, and later, as commander of the state Fish and Wildlife Protection Division in Western Alaska. He ultimately was promoted to deputy director of the Alaska State Troopers.

Daunting challenges

The grim statistics are well known. Alaska ranks No. 1 in the nation for forcible rape (2.8 times the national average), No. 1 in the nation for females murdered by males (3.5 times the national average), and No. 1 for suicides. According to a victimization survey conducted by the University of Alaska’s Justice Center in 2009, more than half of women in Alaska have been a victim of sexual violence in their lifetimes. The UAA study is one that Masters knows well, since he pushed to have it conducted, said Katie TePas, the state’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response coordinator, who also co-authored the study.

“That’s one of his crowning achievements,” TePas said. “He pushed for the research that ultimately got us to a position of strength for the (Choose Respect) initiative, where we could ask for funding and convey the understanding of what was needed.”

TePas described Masters as a good listener with a keen intellect. “You might think he’s quiet, but he can actually be forceful, in a positive way,” she said. “It’s definitely been a team effort. But we’re so much further than we would have been without Joe’s leadership.”

Masters will be the first to say that challenges lie ahead. Villages in the Northwest Arctic region and Aleutians still struggle to hire and retain VPSOs. Seventy-five communities currently lack any kind of law enforcement presence. But Masters remains optimistic about what the Alaska Native people can accomplish.

“Alaska Natives are probably some of the most intelligent people on the planet,” he said. “But it took a long time for this issue to develop and it’s going to take a lot of work to tackle it.”

Julie Fate Sullivan is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage. Story originally appeared in the June/July issue of First Alaskans magazine. Used with permission.