ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska legislators have proposed changes to key elements of the state’s Village Public Safety Officer Program.
One in three communities in the state has no police of any kind, Anchorage Daily News reported Friday in partnership with ProPublica.
The Department of Justice subsequently declared the public safety gap a federal emergency, officials said.
The 40-year-old program uses state money to train and pay officers working in remote villages, but the number of officers fell to a record-low 38 compared to the more than 100 in 2012, legislators in the working group said.
The program’s inability to recruit and retain officers magnifies the lack of law enforcement in rural communities across the state, Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica said.
The working group spent five months seeking ways to fix the program, which includes placing more certified officers in rural Alaska, increasing morale among current officers and retaining village-based first responders who know their communities best, legislators said.
The group also proposed defining officer’s law enforcement powers and duties, removing barriers to officer travel and moving oversight of the program’s budget to the Department of Commerce.
A Public Safety spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday and said the department was still reviewing the report.
The program was launched in 1979 and officers were originally meant to be versatile enough to handle water rescues, fight fires, support troopers and provide basic law enforcement, officials said.
The working group found the program to be unsuccessful because of unclear state laws and expectations.
“Essentially, the current VPSO statute provides virtually no mission, vision, or statutory law enforcement duties for the program or the VPSO personnel,” legislators in the working group said in a report.
Short-term ideas could be implemented within a year, while the working group’s long term ideas include cooperative agreements among the state, tribes and federal government to fund and deliver first-responders to villages and would take more time, legislators said.