- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A state House committee on Tuesday heard strong comments for and against a bill that would allow village public safety officers to carry firearms in the line of duty.

Public Safety Employees Association Executive Director Jake Metcalf told the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee his group has concerns that the village public safety officers will not have the proper training for making the decision on when to use deadly force.

“Our concern is the difference between VPSOs and certified police officers,” Metcalf said. “Do you want private policemen performing police functions in rural Alaska? You are putting weapons into the hands of people who don’t have the training.”

Several Alaska State Troopers echoed Metcalf’s concerns. Troopers Sgt. Jess Carson said the bill sponsored by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, would have village public safety officers go “to the academy and not through the academy.” The bill would have them attend 600 hours or 12 weeks at the Alaska State Troopers Academy at Sitka. The bill budgets $62,600 annually for the program.

Currently, Alaska State Trooper cadets receive 900 hours of training in addition to weeks of supervised field training.

“I am afraid someone will take a life if not supervised properly,” Carson said. He also pointed out that a wrongful shooting may cause the state to face liability of more than the $62,000 budgeted for the program. Questions of liability were also raised in a letter from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association to Edgmon in August.

But Joe Masters, former commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, said it’s time for the state to allow the arming of village public safety officers.

“Their job is becoming more and more dangerous’” Masters said. He told the committee that statistics show violence has been increasing in rural Alaska since 2002. Masters noted seven assaults involving firearms have occurred against the officers in the past year.

Village public safety officers serve as first responders in rural communities that can be located hours or days from the nearest state trooper, depending on the weather. Edgmon’s bill followed the shooting death last year of an unarmed village public safety officer in Manokotak.

The House bill envisions 20 village public safety officers a year going through the Alaska State Trooper Academy annually.

The bill does not require village public safety officers to carry a firearm. It just allows the option.

Alaska has 93 of the officers serving in 71 communities. There are also 10 roving village public safety officers filling in where needed.

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