Aside from making the news 30 years ago when ten reportedly “uneducable” native students shocked the nation by taking first place in a Future Problem Solving competition, the town of Gambell, Alaska remains relatively obscure. Resting on the northwest cape of Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, 200 miles southwest of Nome and 36 miles from the Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia, this remote village boasts a population of 681 predominately Yup’ik Eskimos. Off the road system, the only way to get to Gambell is by boat, snow machine or plane. Most of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle hunting marine mammals to survive, and holding close to the cultures and traditions of their ancestors. It is within this small, overcast village that Corporal Deborah Apatiki, a 57-year-old, born and raised St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik resides, patrols and acts as the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO).
One of 87 VPSOs throughout Alaska, next month Apatiki will mark two and a half years on post. “I wanted to help people,” she explains. “To help the families here.” Before there was a VPSO, community members could not get help, as the closest trooper post is in Nome. The VPSO program brought law enforcement and peace to the community.
Apatiki begins her day by typing up her police reports and sending them via email to her oversight trooper. Then she starts her rounds. “I go to the school and eat lunch with the students,” she explains. “I patrol, go to the store and the post office. I go to the public places and make sure nobody is causing a disturbance.” Although Gambell is a dry village, where possession and consumption of alcohol is prohibited, she still has to deal with intoxication. “Some of my calls are to remove a drunk person,” she says. “When people violate the condition, I pick them up.” Apatiki has authority to hire jail guards while waiting for transport. “We keep them until the next plane comes,” she says. “Then they transport them to Nome to the correctional facility there.” Although a plane comes twice a day, wind and fog can keep it on the ground.
Alaska’s VPSO program came into being as a way to get law enforcement officers into remote villages. Without access to roads, many places were cut off, making response from Alaska State Troopers difficult and slow. Sergeant Leonard Wallner, Statewide VPSO Coordinator, Department of Public Safety, Alaska State Troopers says the program came to exist in 1979. “It’s designed to be a home grown deal, someone from the community stepping forward. If something goes down they have a trained officer in the village to pull things in check until troopers can get there.” Initially, the program was designed to hire locals. Currently it’s around 50 percent Alaskan Natives and 50 percent from Outside (the lower 48).
Sergeant Max Olick was born and raised in Kwethluk, a village of 721 people 15 miles from Bethel, but off the road system. Olick has been a VPSO for 32 years. He explained his initial interest was pay, but it steadily evolved into a much deeper commitment. At the start of his career Olick says he was“in the dark.”
“It was the toughest year of my life. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Prisoners would ask me what I was charging them with and I would say, ‘I’m going to take you to town and they will tell you what I am charging you with.’” Troopers helped him out, gave him on-the-job training and he learned different techniques. “Back then, it was a pilot program and they didn’t expect us to last more than five or six years,” Olick says. “We didn’t know what to do or what was going on, but we survived.”
The VPSO program has a unique structure. Funded by Alaska legislature and managed by Alaska DPS, the state enters into contracts with Alaskan Native Regional Corporations (ANRC), local non-profit organizations. Currently there are 10 contracts each reflecting needs and values of the represented villages. The ANRC accepts applications for new VPSOs and makes hiring decisions. Once hired, VPSOs attend 10-week training at the Alaska DPS Public Safety Training Academy in Sitka. “It’s not the same class, but the same academy,” says Wallner. “It’s tweaked somewhat.”
One VPSO, First Sergeant James Hoelscher, a 5-year veteran in Hooper Bay with a population of 1,144, says his training was unique due to his beginning as a Village Police Officer (VPO), promoting to the Hooper Bay Chief of Police (municipal) and then stepping into the role of VPSO. Due to his transitions he has attended all the offered basic trainings for officers in the state of Alaska. Half Yup’ik and half white, Hoelscher wanted to make an improvement to the community, as well as live, work and teach a culture that seems to be lost these days.
“VPSOs are more than a peace officer,” states Wallner. “They wear more hats.” The officers are trained as fire chief, search & rescue coordinator, emergency medical services and, in coastal communities, harbor master.
On the street
Rural Alaska has more than its fair share of misdemeanors and other offenses. VPSOs handle between 3,000 to 4,000 calls per year, although the amount varies from community to community. Wallner says with a VPSO in the village a crime is more likely to be reported. If a citizen knows the trooper is in the hub and has no idea how long it will take for him or her to respond they figure, “Why bother?” DPS has statistics showing this is often the case.
Historically, one of the biggest differences between VPSOs and troopers is the former are unarmed. During the academy, each had “firearm awareness” classes but not the full firearms training that troopers received, as being armed was not allowed under state law. After the March 2014 murder of 54-year-old Manokotak VPSO Thomas O. Madole, legislators recognized the dangerous position these public safety officers held. HB199 was introduced allowing VPSOs to be armed. In April, it passed unanimously and VPSOs now have the option of carrying a firearm. “We are in the process now of revamping the training program,” explains Wallner. “Our preference is to arm them with the same weapons we carry—the Glock .22.”
Equipment and oversight
VPSOs have access to marine band VHS radio, and cell phone technology is available in all the villages. DPS issues the radios and GPS. The ANRC issues the officers either laptops or mounted computers. They also have satellite (SAT) phones available to them. For guidance, VPSOs are assigned an oversight trooper at the regional hub who provides tactical support and direction. During any investigation, the VPSO can reach out to the oversight trooper and get the guidance they need...the oversight trooper is also simply someone to talk to.
For Apatiki the biggest challenge to being a VPSO is working alone. “It would be nice to talk to someone once in a while.” Hoelscher agrees. “Our backup, when we call for it, might be two hours away. That can get stressful if we have an emergency situation where it would be a lot safer with more than one person responding. Going to work and knowing we might have to hold down the fort for two hours while waiting for support from troopers or another VPSO...can be a challenge.”
Although Hoelscher sees remoteness as the scariest challenge, it’s not the only obstacle in his day to day work. “Everyone feels like they have ownership of the VPSO,” he explains. “When you’re dealing with separate entities [that have] different goals and different ideas of how to make those goals work, it can be challenging. We feel like putty.” Wallner goes on to say policies are strongly expressed to officers. “What we drill into our VPSOs is if the tribal law is in any way in conflict with state law, you can’t go there,” says Wallner. “It’s unenforceable. If it’s not in conflict or doesn’t run counter it’s your village, so do what you can to support your village.” Although remoteness and differing goals can be challenging, the main reason for VPSO burnout is never being off-duty.
Community members are encouraged to make reports through the regional dispatch center but often they go straight to the VPSO. “It’s something you do all the time,” Apatiki says. “You can go for two weeks at a time without a day off. To get a day off I have to leave Gambell. Being on constant call can wear you out.” The attrition rate for VPSOs runs about 33 percent per year with the rate going up to 50 percent after three years. Wallner agrees the constant on-call plays a huge role in burnout.
Originally, officers were assigned to isolated villages, but now they are working the road system, too. “Within the last two years we’ve come up with a rover position where you’re assigned to a home community, but you go where you’re needed,” Wallner says. “The program has evolved to meet the needs of the community.”
The biggest challenge ahead lies in deciding whether or not to pick up arms. “We do have those senior guys that...don’t want a gun,” explains Wallner. “They’ve done the job the entire time without a gun. We’re not going to make it mandatory. The training will be provided and they will have the ability. In some cases, it will be a personal choice and in some it will be a regional choice, and even the village will come into play to a lesser degree. A village council could pass a resolution that they want a VPSO, but not armed.”
Apatiki says she will probably carry a firearm after she attends the training and Hoelscher will too, citing his time as a municipal officer coloring his decision. “I carried a firearm for years, and I can name two specific incidents that I wouldn’t be able to be talking to you right now if I wouldn’t have had a firearm.” Although Olick agrees being armed might be appropriate, he will choose not to carry. “I’ve been without firearms for so long I’ve learned to deal with people by talking to them. I left my sidearm behind years ago. Now I have a sick feeling about carrying a sidearm. Those are my people in my community. Those are my family. I’d rather not carry it in the village. They fought for that and they got it. I’m glad those who want it can have it.”
“The VPSOs augment what we do,” explains Wallner. “They are a vital resource in rural Alaska. Across the board, it’s such a tremendous asset.” Hoelscher realizes he might sound corny when he states the best thing about being a VPSO is being a role model to his children, but he feels it is the best thing.
“You see the sparkle in their eye and you hear them telling others that their dad is a VPSO that helps people, and that makes me proud of who I am and what I do. You have a direct line into helping community.”
VPSOs continue to make a difference, earning their motto, “First Responders—Last Frontier.”
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.