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St. Paul Island transitions to Village Public Safety Officers amid years-long struggle to find stable law enforcement

Ethan Candyfire
The Pribilof community hasn’t had a stable police force since the fall of 2021 after the entire police department and EMS personnel resigned over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

After nearly two years without a stable police force, the remote Pribilof Island community of St. Paul is welcoming new Village Public Safety Officers.

City Manager Philip Zavadil said he thinks the transition from a police force to public safety officers will be a good change for the remote community.

“Not only is it a good fit for St. Paul, I think for most of rural Alaska, it's a better fit because we're not big [cities],” Zavadil said. “We have different problems, different ways of resolving those problems, different challenges.”

Village Public Safety Officers — or VPSOs — provide a number of services. While they do community policing, they also provide emergency, medical and fire response, search and rescue operations, as well as public safety education. And unlike most police officers, they aren’t trained to carry firearms.

Zavadil said that means they have to be prepared to solve problems in other ways.

“You have to use different tools,” he said. “You basically have to be a very good communicator when you're in a high stress situation.”

The VPSO program started in 1979 as a way to provide public safety to remote and rural parts of Alaska. St. Paul Island hasn’t utilized public safety officers since the early 1990s.

VPSOs often work with Alaska State Troopers, and the program is managed under the state’s Department of Public Safety. But they work for the Alaska Native organizations or regional municipalities that hire them.

St. Paul’s VPSOs were acquired with help from the region’s nonprofit tribal organization, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. APIA is working with the city to fill two VPSO positions in St. Paul. The organization has officers in a number of communities in the region, including Adak, Nelson Lagoon and St. George.

The Pribilof community hasn’t had a stable police force since the fall of 2021 after the entire police department and EMS personnel resigned over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Since then, turnover in the department has been very high. Until the island’s new public safety officer arrived Sunday, the community’s been without any law enforcement for nearly four months, according to Zavadil.

A community service officer employed by the city has been helping by doing things like serving papers, but when it comes to more serious issues, Zavadil said the city has had to reach out to an off-island State Trooper.

“We've been struggling trying to find officers that would be a good fit for our community and want to stay here and not do this rotating schedule that seems to be fairly popular now with rural communities in Alaska,” he said.

St. Paul’s new VPSOs will be on the island full-time. Zavadil said that’s a much better fit than having rotating law enforcement officers.

“It just doesn't fit our community,” he said. “You need to be communicating and go out and greet people on the street or in the store. We have a coffee shop now — you'll sit down and have a cup of coffee with people or go talk to elders.”

St. Paul took a major economic hit after Alaska’s snow crab fishery closed last fall for the first time in the fishery’s history. The remote island’s economy is almost entirely dependent on the snow crab harvest.

Without the crab revenue, Zavadil said the city just doesn’t have enough money to compete with other law enforcement agencies — especially when flights on and off St. Paul Island can cost nearly $1000 one-way.

Zavadil said the public safety program should save the city anywhere from about $100,000 to $200,000 a year.

St. Paul will ultimately have two VPSOs living on the island full-time. One arrived Sunday from Adak, and the city is expecting the second officer next month.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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