Sponsor Statement for SB 145
An Act relating to the expansion of the village public safety officer program to include the provision of probation and parole supervision services, and to retirement benefits for village public safety officers.
The Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program is the first line of law enforcement in many small communities in the unincorporated areas of the state. Designed as a "first responder" law enforcement arm for many villages throughout the state, the VPSO program has established a commendable record of public service previously unavailable to these communities.
Although the VPSO program falls within the Department of Public Safety, the officers are actually employed by the Native nonprofit corporations responsible for the area. VPSO oversight, technical support, training and field support are provided by the Department of Public Safety. The selection of officers in a particular village is jointly approved by the nonprofit corporation and the Alaska State Troopers.
A VPSO learns about law enforcement, first aid, fire fighting and other public safety issues by attending an eight-week VPSO Academy, which includes a two-week fire-fighting course. Continued training is provided depending on the proficiency of the officer and the specific needs of the area.
VPSO officers are unique in that they are selected partly for their familiarity with and background in the geographic area they serve. Special consideration is given to hiring residents with a long history in the community. With specialized training unavailable to most villagers, the VPSO officer provides preliminary services that include law enforcement, EMS, first aid, fire fighting assistance, emergency search and rescue support, initial alcohol and drug abuse support for the community, domestic counseling and, equally important, scheduled and emergency contact with the Troopers.
At one time, there were over 120 VPSO officers in the state. Presently, the program consists of only 85 VPSO officer positions. Despite the successes of this program, it has been plagued with temporary shortages of officers. Investigations have exposed the most obvious reasons for the relatively high turnover rate among VPSO officers. Cited the most frequently were:
Senate Bill 145 is designed to resolve some of the above complaints and to elevate the VPSO program to a point where it provides incentive for law enforcement stability within these small communities.
This legislation also creates a Regional Public Safety Officer (RPSO) program within the Department of Public Safety to serve as a link between the VPSO officers and the troopers, to provide a career path for VPSO officers and to provide a local supervisory position for which service as a VPSO officer is an important ingredient in the selection of regional officers. RPSO officers, like VPSO officers, will be allowed and encouraged to remain in the same area and not be required to move around the state like Troopers are required to do. The RPSO differs from the VPSO in that the regional officers will be state employees; they will be part of the Department of Public Safety and will participate in the state's retirement system. They will not be part of the police retirement system until they become certified police officers. Regional officers will have more supervisory and training responsibilities than village officers. Regional officers need not be certified police officers but in-service training opportunities will provide the option for the RPSO to meet required standards and receive certification while occupying the same position.
The fiscal note for SB 145 includes a pilot project for the RPSO system with the initial hiring of four regional officers. Continuation of this program will depend on favorable reports from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Corrections and the VPSO non-profit employers.
VPSO and RPSO officers will be given some probation and parole supervision authority as directed by the Department of Corrections. This will serve two purposes. Individuals on probation and parole will be allowed to serve within their own community rather than being forced to reside in larger more hostile situations where the individual does not have family support and is more likely to develop recurring problems. This will also serve to provide more responsibilities for the VPSO and RPSO officers concurrent with increased compensation.
This legislation has provided that the VPSO officer may be included in the state retirement system, but not under the police officer retirement system. Some VPSO officers may choose to remain under the existing non-profit corporation retirement system being provided.
It should be emphasized that neither the VPSO nor RPSO program is intended to replace an incorporated community police force. This program specifically targets communities with populations under 1,000 and does not provide the technical sophisticated law enforcement and training provided by many municipal police organizations. The VPSO and RPSO programs are designed to augment and complement other municipal and statewide law enforcement programs.
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