Training Nears For First Wave Of Armed Alaska VPSOs

YK Delta VPSOs spoke with DPS officials about the process of arming VPSOs during training in Bethel. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)
YK Delta VPSOs spoke with DPS officials about the process of arming VPSOs during training in Bethel. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Village Public Safety Officers in Western Alaska will be participating in a pilot program that could make them the first VPSOs in the state to carry weapons in their job. Seven experienced officers are in the middle of psychological evaluations right now and are advancing towards training.

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About a year after the legislature passed a law to allow VPSOs to carry a gun, a handful of Western Alaska communities should have trained officers on the job with firearms. A pilot project to arm the first VPSOs has seven candidates who are in the middle of intensive psychological testing before they advance to training. Captain Andrew Merrill is the Alaska State Troopers’ Commander of the VPSO program.

“This pilot project will help us design and review the training process we use, to look at the selection process to determine if it’s too strict or too loose, and to figure out exactly what works best to provide the safe service to communities and keep our VPSOs safe throughout the region,” said Merrill.

Captain Andrew Merrill, the state’s VPSO commander, speaks with YK Delta VPSOs in regular training. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.
Captain Andrew Merrill, the state’s VPSO commander, speaks with YK Delta VPSOs in regular training. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

KYUK spoke with law enforcement officials in Bethel this week for regular training. In 2014 the Alaska legislature passed a law allowing VPSOs to carry guns, in addition to a taser and baton. It was spurred by the death of a VPSO in Manokotak, Thomas Madole, who was shot and killed while unarmed. In many communities, VPSOs are the only law enforcement and work without backup.

Four of the seven prospective armed VPSOs will be in communities served by the Association of Village Council Presidents Villages, or AVCP, plus one each in Bristol Bay, the Interior, and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Merrill isn’t saying which communities right now, due to the intense pressure on the candidates to succeed in the evaluations.

Merrill says they started with the “best of the best” for candidates. The VPSO, the community, and the non-profit employer have all agreed to move ahead. To make it to training, candidates have to pass a physical test, which includes push-ups, sitting and running, go through intensive background checks, pass a written psychological test, and an in-person evaluation with a psychologist. They’re ultimately reviewed by a three-person panel of trooper officials who will make a recommendation to the colonel in charge of all state troopers, about who advances to intensive firearms training.

Officials are planning the 21-day course in March at the trooper academy in Sitka for training on topics including weapons ethics, use of deadly force, and simulations. Merrill says that training on use of force builds on years of preparing troopers for rural Alaska law enforcement.

“What options are available to use in different situations based on the totality of what’s happening. How does that best apply to resolving the situation as safely as possible? Regarding the use of force, it’s governed by statute: you use deadly force in defense of yourself or others in life threatening or serious injury situations,” said Merrill.

Troopers play a key role in training. The VPSOs will use the same .40 caliber Glock pistol that troopers carry and each VPSO will be paired with a state trooper for experience in an urban part of the state. The trooper will also spend time in the VPSO’s community for observation and training following the Sitka training.

“Once we do that, we’ll roll through the mentorship process and observations, and evaluation of how it’s working. The anticipation is that around the same time next year, we’ll roll into another class. We’ll do another transition course, maybe with adaptions, maybe we did it right, it was perfect, but we’ll adapt it and make it work. We’ll go through that next cycle,” said Merrill.

Originally 21 candidates were ready to move through the program, but Merrill says 14 have dropped out due to a personal reasons or not being able to meet physical fitness standards.

“What this has done is opened the conversation to consider can I emotionally do this? Can I use deadly force if I needed to? Some think they can, but realize the aftermath of that of living and working in a small community of 300 or 400 and knowing and being related to some of them could be devastating, so they’ve chosen to not participate at this time, but may in the future,” said Merrill.

Alvin Jimmie is the AVCP VPSO program director, the employer of the VPSOs. He emphasizes teamwork and collaboration in the coming months.

“Working cohesively together as a team to establish the pros and cons, that’s the best way to approach it, from my perspective, look at the pros and cons and concentrate on the pros and move on with those” said Jimmie.

The VPSO’s anticipated graduation from the academy is April 3rd.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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