- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The House Finance Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would allow for village public safety officers to carry a firearm while on duty.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, was in response to the shooting death of village public safety officer Thomas Madole at Manotak last year. It had been the first killing of a village public safety officer since Ronald Zimin in South Naknek in 1986.

Edgmon and others contend that violence in rural Alaska is on the rise and nonprofits that hire the officers, known as VPSOs, should be allowed to arm the officers.

However, the number of felonies and misdemeanors handled by rural courts at Barrow, Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue and Nome has remained steady over the last two years, according to figures provided by the Alaska Department of Law.

In 2013, those courts saw 1,102 felony cases as opposed to 1,166 cases in 2012. The same courts handled 4,643 misdemeanors in 2013 as opposed to 4,894 cases in 2012.

Last year, there were four other instances when village public safety officers were threatened with weapons, but in two cases, they were an armed member of law enforcement at the time.

The officers are employees of nonprofits and are not state employees. They are under the supervision of the Alaska State Troopers.

Several troopers have spoken against the bill, noting that the safety officers wouldn’t be properly trained to use deadly force. Others complained about liability issues for the state since it is mostly nonprofit organizations that employ the safety officers.

The role of a village officer is seen as a first responder to a village’s emergency needs including law enforcement, fire, search and rescue, and medical.

The bill moves to the House Rules Committee.

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