Homer Tribune: Villages get COPS

Many Alaska villages — such as Nanwalek, across Kachemak Bay — often go for months, and even years without a public safety officer. Historically, the pay has been so low, many VPSOs qualified for food stamps.

In Nanwalek’s case, a strong tribal chief system means the village doesn’t go without law enforcement.

“We have our own system for taking care of a situation. I will get up at 2 in the morning, at 6, if necessary,” said First Nanwalek Tribal Chief Wally Kvasnikoff. “We do pretty good keeping problems down, and then if there is a larger problem, we call in the Troopers.”

Nanwalek hasn’t had a VPSO for more than a year. But the problem of villages lacking enforcement officers dates far back with new solutions in the works.

In 2003, Gov. Frank Murkowski chopped $2 million from the Department of Public Safety budget. With just 30 day’s notice, Skip Richards, the man in charge of Chugachmuit’s village pubic safety officer program, had to lay off all his officers. That included Nanwalek’s.

Sen. Ted Stevens was able to help villages out in 2007, securing $2 million in an earmark to support the VPSO program.

“At that point, I had to cold-start a dead program,” Richards explained. “All the infrastructure was gone, the offices were gone. That has caused some problems in filling the positions.”

The good news, however, is that pay has increased. From the 1989 low of $8.53 an hour, VPSOs now make a living wage at $23 per hour.

And now a new program offers to fund villages officers. Through a funding measure signed into law July 29, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was able to add provisions to the Tribal Law and Order Act that allows villages the same access to funding that cities and towns have long known. On Thursday, President Barack Obama signed a measure into law that now allows the State of Alaska, tribes and tribal organizations to fund VPSO positions with two different grants: Community Oriented Policing, or COPS grants, and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants.

Currently, VPSO positions are funded by the Alaska Department of Public Safety or through congressional earmarks.

“The VPSOs are the police department, the fire department, the EMS and search and rescue all rolled into one,” Murkowski said. “It is only fair that rural Alaska Native communities have the same access to public safety funds that communities and cities across America have.”

Some 90 villages in Alaska lacked officers who could act in the first line of defense to keep crimes from escalating, she said.

Richards said the additional funding option is good news, but he is not clear yet on how the program will work to complement what is already in existence. The funding will only pick up the tab for three years, and requires the tribe to keep the person on hire for a year beyond the three-year grant.

“When they ratchet down, it creates a funding problem,” Richards said. “You get money to get it up and running, then the expectation is that the community picks up the tab. But there’s no money in village councils to do that.”

He is also concerned the position “might go backwards in terms of salary” because it pays entry level wages only. Of the four villages under Chugachmuit’s umbrella, only one has a VPSO. That’s Port Graham. Tititlik, Chenega Bay and Nanwalek do not currently have one. They are served instead by Alaska State Troopers called from posts in Valdez and Anchor Point, or by strong tribal chiefs.

In nearby Nanwalek, the reason right now is that there is no housing to offer a candidate for the job. But a housing project under construction for teachers offers a chance to rent one in the near future, Richards said. VPSO’s answer to three entities: the tribal council, the Alaska State Troopers who provide them with oversight and the nonprofit through which the funding for the officer is passed.

“We have a memorandum of agreement,” he said. “I will advertise first in the village, and then for a position on the trooper website. We need consensus between all three before we hire.”

The measure is meant to help fill the troubling gap in village policing, Murkowski’s aide Michael Brumas explained.

“Both of these programs — COPS and SAFER — are a hand-up, and not a handout. In the long term, funding will need to come from the state, the nonprofit, or the tribes to sustain the positions. The key point is that the federal government, through these grant programs, participates in an expense that used to be 100 percent state, local or tribal.”

Access to COPS funding also gives the option to train out of state among other tribal officers at work on reservations.

“This is probably a positive thing. Any time you can bring resources into a program, it is good. But it can’t de-stablize an existing program and I don’t think this would do that,” Richards said. “There’s also nothing wrong with additional training.”

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Source: By Naomi Klouda. Originally publisehd August 04, 2010