Tanana Village public safety officers seek ability to carry guns

Tanana Chiefs Conference Village public safety officers are on track to be the first in the state to carry guns.

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State legislators approved a bill in 2014 allowing for the arming of VPSO’s, and under a pilot project with the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Tanana Chiefs Conference officers will be the first to carry firearms. TCC VPSO Director Sargent Jody Potts tied the initiative to a proactive stance on public safety.

”We’re very heavily village-driven and in the villages, they know what’s going on out there, how dangerous and unsafe it is,” Potts said. “I have so many villages that have said, ‘Look. It’s not just about officers’ safety, it’s about community safety. We have things that happen in our community that we want an officer to adequately protect not just them but our community.”

Sergeant Potts said two TCC VPSO’s have completed firearms training at the state police academy, and the primary obstacle to them carrying guns on duty is insurance.

”Enough coverage to make sure that our villages, the officers and our organization will be okay,” Potts said.

Captain Andrew Merrill is commander of the Alaska State Trooper VPSO program.

“We have an insurance policy that covers our VPSO and any armed VPSOs,’ Merrill said. “We still have questions as to what it looks like if and when a VPSO would use deadly force.”

Merrill said Troopers are working with VPSO contractor organizations like TCC across the state to resolve insurance and other issues.

”A team of attorneys from the state Attorney General’s office as well as attorneys from each of the organizations are working together to make sure that we all know what it means for the VPSOs as well as the organizations,” Merrill said.

Captain Merrill said in the meantime, all new VPSO candidates are undergoing firearms and other training exactly like that required for municipal police and Alaska State Troopers. TCC’s Potts said there’s no timeline on fielding armed VPSO’s anticipates that doing so could make the job more attractive.

“Working unarmed, alone in a village with no backup. I’m not getting a lot of people,” Potts said.

Potts added that the ten percent crime rate in the TCC region is twice that of Fairbanks or Anchorage.

”There’s definitely room for improvement,” Potts said. “There’s some things we definitely need to address and I don’t think that keep operating as ‘business as usual’ is the right approach.”

Potts said TCC currently has officers in 14 villages, but another 30 lack a resident VPSO, and  that Alaska Native health and safety contractors like TCC also need more state assistance to help fund VPSO positions.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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