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What Does Arming VPSOs Mean for Rural Alaska?

By Austin Baird, Political, Rural Reporter, abaird@ktuu.com
Published On: Feb 19 2014 09:00:00 PM AKST

This time last year, Chance Cunningham was a correctional officer in Missouri.

BETHEL -

There are no snow berms to speak of in Bethel on a sunny Tuesday in February, and the nearby tundra is similarly, conspicuously, ice-slicked and snow-free.

At the Alaska Commercial Value Center, customers and employees laugh at stories of the gridlocked South, where a dusting of snow here and a patch of ice there wreaked havoc everywhere.

Talks around town also center on a perpetual topic: how to safely travel to any of the several dozen villages strewn across the shores of the Kuskokwim River.

Airplanes are good when the wind cooperates; boats get the job done when the ice breaks up. But even amid an unseasonably warm winter, travel along the frozen river – by four-wheeler, snow machine and truck – remains one of the most common transportation methods.

The original plan was to touch down in the Western Alaska hub then swap to a smaller airplane headed to Nunapitchuk for a story on village public safety officers, but the mechanical gods had another idea: an early-morning Alaska Airlines flight turned back to Anchorage due to busted landing gear, and another problem kept mechanics pecking away at an idle replacement airplane for hours.

Monday was done by the time I arrived in Bethel, so Tuesday morning, we headed to the office of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal nonprofit that oversees the state's largest village public safety officer program. AVCP provides services to a land area roughly the size of Oregon and currently employs VPSO officers in 19 communities.

Alvin Jimmie is director of the organization's VPSO program.

"Maybe you could have made it in a plane yesterday," he says. "Maybe not. It was windy."

In any case, Jimmie says he plans a trip upriver to Akiak with his colleague William Kanuk so the two can check on a newly-minted officer who just completed the second tier of training at a state-run academy in Sitka.

The Ford F-150 they drive has plenty of room for a couple extra, so they offer a ride. I sit in the back seat alongside the longest-serving VPSO in the state, Max Olick, who is hitching a ride to his hometown of Kwethluk.

As we drive along the road, the sound of water slapping beneath the ice is occasionally audible in the cab of the truck. Whenever the sun shimmers, branches of golden light glint along cracks that start and end somewhere out of sight.

"How thick is the ice?"

"It's getting thicker now," Jimmie says. "18 inches – maybe two feet."

"What are they doing with those sticks?"

Kanuk explains that some of the clusters of wooden sticks mark ice fishing spots carved and checked daily, while others are put out to mark open water and dangerously thin ice. He says it is rare for vehicles to fall through, but one recently went for an unexpected swim not far from the stretch of road we are traveling.

Flight-related delays and a ride along a soggy river may be the perfect beginning to a trek into rural Alaska to explore why there is a push to allow VPSOs to carry firearms and what it would mean for villages.

Not long after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlements Act in 1971, with new wealth trickling into villages, regional Native associations like AVCP started asking and answering recurring questions that laid the groundwork for the VPSO program:

Who in remote communities can be counted on during search and rescue missions to organize operations and make sure helpers avoid becoming additional victims?

When someone runs afoul of the law and armed officers are in faraway places, who can make the most of a bad situation until backup arrives?

What if another emergency arises and help is a grounded flight or a mushy river away?

“If a situation arrives, we are ready,” says Michael Hoffman, vice president of AVCP, sitting inside a Bethel conference room.

Hoffman’s family has distant ties to Western Alaska – “all the way back to the beginning, until the end” – and he says the VPSO program provides another service that is often overlooked.

“If a trooper comes in, you have a person that knows the families, that knows everyone living in the villages, someone that knows the language,” Hoffman says.

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'THINGS HAVE CHANGED'

While the VPSO program is lauded by many rural community leaders, a recent tragedy left many people wondering why most of the officers are not allowed to carry firearms.

One afternoon last March, the lone VPSO serving Manokotak was fatally shot.

Thomas Madole, 54, was responding to reports of an argument involving a family that escalated when a man slapped his stepfather in the face.

Leroy B. Dick, Jr., the 42-year-old stepson, was reportedly suicidal when Madole was called in to try and diffuse the situation.

Madole brought a baton, handcuffs, pepper spray and a Taser – the standard tools issued to a VPSO – to what proved to be a gunfight. The VPSO made his way to the house in question and knocked on the door and knocked again. He tried to convince Dick to come outside peacefully, to step away without making a bad decision.

Dick eventually stepped outside, and he fired multiple .223-caliber rounds from a rifle as Madole turned his back and tried in vain to get away.

A bullet hit Madole in the head, and others hit his abdomen, chest and thigh. He was dead when armed troopers arrived.

The death marked the second time in the history of the program that an officer was killed in the line of duty. Ronald Eugene Zimin, a former Naknek VPSO, was 36-years-old when he was shot dead while responding to a report of domestic violence.

In hearing the stories surrounding the officers’ tragic deaths, a common question arises: Why would a VPSO not have a gun?

Max Olick, the Kwethluk VPSO, has never carried a gun on the job since assuming his role in 1981. And he never much liked the bulletproof vest adorned by most of his colleagues, so it usually hangs somewhere in the community’s public safety building.

“Arming VPSOs, I’m for it, but I’ve got mixed feelings,” Olick says. “Things have changed. The people have changed.

“Maybe it’s time.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part KTUU.com series. The rest of the story can be found here.