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Cautious Optimism from Rural Alaska for Arming VPSOs

By Austin Baird, Political, Rural Reporter, abaird@ktuu.com
Published On: Feb 20 2014 06:00:00 AM AKST

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

AKIAK -

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

Cunningham was raised in Anchorage, Juneau and in Lower 48 cities, the son of a career U.S. Marshal.

Walking along a gravel road in Akiak, where he has been the VPSO for about six months, Cunningham explains that he first imagined a life in rural Alaska while watching the TV show Alaska State Troopers.

Along with his wife and two young kids, the 25-year-old now lives in the village upriver from Bethel.

He just returned from a 10-week course at a state-run academy in Sitka, which is the second of three tiers of required training for new VPSOs.

While sequestered at the Southeast Alaska facility, Cunningham was among a dozen officers going through a daily fitness regimen, learning hand-to-hand combat and picking up wilderness survival skills.

By the time his training is done, he will be proficient in policing skills, search and rescue efforts, emergency medical services and firefighting.

“Using your mind, being able to talk through situations, that’s also a big part of the training,” Cunningham says.

Now that Cunningham is home, a thousand miles from the training grounds, he says he is again focusing on a key part of the job that is something of a process.

“The best way to really get into a culture, into the community, is to do what they do,” he says. “If they go hunting and you don’t like hunting, you better learn to like hunting if you want them to accept you.

Learning to fit in with a community unlike any place he lived before, gaining the trust of longtime residents, that is a definite key to success for VPSOs drawn to “middle of nowhere Alaska,” as Cunningham calls it, from urban Alaska or the Lower 48.

So Cunningham hunts, and he does whatever else he can to help the community.

“It’s a lot of talking with kids at the school, spending time up at the school, helping out with kids,” he says.

The baton on Cunningham’s belt remains scuff-free, the can of pepper spray is still full and the Taser has only been taken out when a curious kid wonders why he has a weird yellow thing on his belt.

But he knows this season will pass, that he will someday be tested.

“It’s not a question of if,” he says. “It’s a question of when.”

If a day arrives that the tools on Cunningham’s belt are not enough, he says he hopes he is allowed to carry a gun.

“Just for the peace of mind,” he says.

Longest-Serving VPSO Talks Gun Proposal

After an afternoon drive along the Kuskokwim River and a stop in Akiak, William Kanuk heads south along a stretch of river he has never driven before.

Kanuk stops and talks to a man standing outside a truck full of sticks, who explains in Yup’ik that the final stretch of road to Kwethluk could be precarious.

“He says to follow the tracks,” Kanuck tells the passengers.

We make it to Max Olick’s village without incident, and we drive to the public safety building stamped with Olick’s name, a building used by the VPSO and three tribal police officers to serve the community of about 700 residents.

'GETTING SHOT AT THAT TIME WAS IMMINENT'

“Arming VPSOs, I’m for it, but I’ve got mixed feelings,” says Olick, sitting at a desk in his office. “Things have changed. The people have changed.”

Olick loves his community: his wife, the rest of his family, his friends, the fish camp he keeps all summer, the mushing dogs that help him stay busy all winter.

“I know everybody in the village,” he says. “I want to make a safer place for people to live in.”

There are problems that have grown stronger in recent years, Olick says.

“We are hard hit by drugs and alcohol,” he says. “It changes everything.”

Olick is used to doing his job unarmed, but there have been close calls.

One incident he remembers in particular was a standoff. He was confronted by a man wielding a high-powered gun.

“I couldn’t even run, I couldn’t even hide,” Olick says. “Getting shot at that time was imminent.”

“I called the troopers, but they mentioned something about, ‘we’ll be there tomorrow.’”

The situation ended after more than five hours when the man unsuccessfully attempted to shoot himself in the head, a suicide attempt that failed due to the length of the barrel of the gun.

Things could have ended differently: “If I was armed, maybe he would have been shot,” the VPSO says. 

While that may have preserved his own life, a fatal ending would have been unspeakably tragic for Olick and everyone in Kwethluk.

“If I shoot one individual, that’s a person that I know and grew up with, or somebody’s child that I grew up with or one of my relatives,” Olick explains. “It’s going to be pretty hard for me to live with that.”

WARY SUPPORT

Olick, like AVCP, supports House Bill 199, a proposal by Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) that would give regional Native associations the option of arming VPSOs.

But that does not mean Olick or AVCP want every officer to have a firearm.

Under House Bill 199, the popular proposal making its way through the Alaska Legislature, training would be required and the decision to arm a VPSO would not be made by the state – and that local control is imperative to many rural residents.

Moses Owen is a member of the Akiak Tribal Council, and he says the key is making sure the community knows and trusts their VPSO.

“We have to make sure these individuals are trained, that they will work with the community and that they won’t use the gun as something that will make them bigger than the members of the community here,” Owen says.

Olick agrees.

“Maybe it’s time, but the communities who the VPSOs work for should have a say in this."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is second of a two-part KTUU.com series on rural perspectives to House Bill 199, which would arm village public safety officers. Part one can be found here.