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Sexual Violence Against Alaska Women: Village Public Safety Officers Having Some Impact

Village public safety officers, Alaska paraprofessional first-responders serving tribal communities, have significantly affected law enforcement’s response to reported cases of sexual abuse of minors, according to NIJ-supported research.
Date Published
August 24, 2020

Alaska Native and American Indian women have proved to be especially vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence. The extraordinary risk of assault faced by Alaska Native women is reflected in, among other data, crime report compilations showing that, year after year, Alaska’s rape incidence was well over twice the national rate.  [1]

To help illuminate and assist the justice system’s response to these crimes, NIJ supported research by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center focusing on the unique contribution of Alaska’s village public safety officers (VPSOs) to that response. The research examined more than 1,500 sexual assault and domestic violence cases in parts of western Alaska where quite a few tribal communities are concentrated.

Sexual Assault

The study[2] found that VPSOs improved the justice system’s response to sexual abuse of minors by increasing the likelihood that, once reported, those cases would be referred for prosecution and, in the end, would result in a convictions. To the surprise of the researchers, however, the study found that the impact of VPSOs’ response to sexual abuse cases involving minors differed from the impact of VPSOs’ response to cases of sexual assault against women. VPSOs did not significantly impact the response to sexual assault cases overall, when other factors were taken into account, the research report said.

The research also found that, besides acting as a “force multiplier” for Alaska State Troopers (AST) responding to violence against women, the VPSOs delivered important post-incident services in cases of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and domestic violence incidents.

With respect to the sexual abuse of minors, the researchers concluded that responding VPSOs and other paraprofessional police in Alaska significantly strengthened the criminal justice response.

The research team, led by Brad A. Myrstol, director of the Justice Center, concluded that the new data suggests that there is something about the nature of sexual abuse of minors and the investigation of those cases that makes VPSO and other paraprofessional police involvement more impactful on key case-processing outcomes. Although the researchers identified no VPSO-specific benefit for sexual assault cases overall, they also found no evidence that involvement of VPSOs or other paraprofessional police hindered such cases or lowered the likelihood of positive justice outcomes.

Along with VPSOs, the research examined the impact of two other Alaska paraprofessional police groups on the justice system’s response to sexual violence against women: village police officers and tribal police officers. The study determined that the three groups all had positive impacts on the law enforcement response to sexual violence against women (e.g., reduced reporting time, improved evidence collection), and, in sexual abuse of a minor cases, increased referral of cases for prosecution. In what the report called “an important caveat,” however, it did not find that the VPSOs produced tangibly better justice outcomes than the other two paraprofessional police groups.

Domestic Violence

VPSOs were found to be frequently involved as first responders in domestic violence incidents — much more frequently than in sexual assault incidents or cases involving the sexual abuse of minors. However, VPSO involvement did not raise the probability that those cases would result in referral or acceptance for prosecution or, ultimately, actual prosecution. That was the case because domestic violence cases had high rates of referral, acceptance, and conviction, no matter who served as the first responder, the researchers reported. Thus, although VPSOs were found to be “intensely involved in the response to, and investigation of, domestic violence incidents,” there was no discernible VPSO-specific effect on outcomes, the report said.

The significant presence of VPSOs as responders to domestic violence — they responded to one out of every five cases in the sample, and they participated in some way in one of every three cases — suggested a positive impact in stopping and mitigating acts of domestic violence, even in cases not referred for prosecution.

VPSOs made a significant impact in terms of post-incident services in domestic violence cases. Researchers reported that in 11.7% of examined responses in those cases, VPSOs provided post-incident services such as referrals to medical services, victim advocacy services, safe shelters, mental health and counseling services, and transportation.

In sexual assault and sexual abuse of minor cases, VPSOs engaged less frequently in post-incident support and services (1.9% of studied cases), but in those cases their post-incident support and services were “critically important,” the researchers said.

The Unique Role of Village Public Safety Officers

Researchers referred to the VPSOs as an effective “force multiplier” for AST, which serves approximately 230 tribal communities in Alaska. Not only must AST cover geographically remote communities, but it must also be sensitive and responsive to those communities’ cultural norms. To help meet those challenges, since 1981 AST has administered the VPSO program. Funded through the Alaska Department of Public Safety, the VPSO program is innovative in three key respects, the researchers noted:

  1. It uses a corps of paraprofessional police (Paraprofessional police do not have the authority or training of certified police officers, but they do have their certifications and regulations.)
  2. It provides comprehensive public safety services, including not only policing but also fire prevention, water, safety, emergency medical response, search and rescue, and other services.
  3. It has a unique administrative structure, featuring both localized control and statewide oversight.

Also of note is the fact that VPSOs are not allowed to carry firearms, absent special certification.

VPSOs are not regulated by the Alaska Police Standards Council and do not have the authority of police officers under Alaska law. VPSOs are employed by regional non-profit corporations or boroughs and are supervised by the entity that hires them, the report said. The policing element of their training is far less extensive than that of police personnel certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council.

The two other paraprofessional police entities noted in the research report, village police officers and tribal police officers, are distinguishable from VPSOs in key respects. Tribal police officers, like VPSOs, are not certified by the state police standards council, but they are usually appointed by a tribal council or unincorporated community. Village police officers are regulated and certified by the police standards council, but the standards for village police officers are much less rigorous than for certified police. A more detailed comparison of qualifications of the three paraprofessional police groups is presented in the article “High Referral Rate for VPSO-Assisted Sex Assault Cases.”[3]

Study Background and Design

Data from Alaska are consistent with long-standing national evidence that violence against Indian women is “extraordinarily high,” the researchers noted. The rates of violence against Indigenous women and other women pointed to a need for innovative responses. To that end, the research on VPSO programs is intended to help law enforcement and other stakeholders to better serve and protect these vulnerable populations.  

The goal of the research was to evaluate empirically the impact of VPSOs on investigation and prosecution of those who commit acts of sexual and domestic violence against Alaska Native and American Indian women in Alaska tribal communities. The research team conducted case record reviews of 683 cases of sexual assault and sexual abuse of a minor and 982 domestic violence cases closed by AST between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2011. Prior to the study, the specific role of VPSOs as a paraprofessional police force had been unexamined, the research report stated. Of the 683 cases of sexual assault and sexual assault of a minor, 123 involved paraprofessionals (including village and tribal police officers), and VPSOs were involved in 51 of those cases.

(A research constraint, the study team noted, was the relatively small sample sizes for sexual assault of women and sexual abuse of minors.)

For all sexual abuse of minor cases and sexual assault cases, adults or minors, the researchers found that the chances of referral for prosecution grew significantly when both victims and witnesses were interviewed. Critical differences between sexual assault cases and sexual abuse of a minor cases emerged, however, in other key measures. First, there was no measurable effect on the chances of referral for prosecution in sexual assault cases in general when the first responders were paraprofessional police, whether VPSOs, village police officers, or tribal police officers. But there was a strong and highly significant effect on referral chances in cases of sexual abuse of a minor (before other variables were added to the analysis), the research team reported.

Encouraging Findings in Cases of Sexual Abuse of Minors 

In the end, the research found that response of paraprofessional police had no impact on the chances of a case of sexual assault of native women being referred for prosecution. But when VPSOs or other paraprofessional police responded to a case of sexual abuse of a minor, referral for prosecution was significantly more likely. One of the reported impediments to referral of sexual assaults of adult victims was noncooperation of victims in investigations. The report said that “SA [sexual assault] cases that included documentation of victim non-cooperation with the investigation were 5 times less likely to be referred than cases that did not contain documentation of victim non-cooperation” (Emphasis in report). In contrast, in cases of sexual assault on minors, non-cooperation had no significant influence on the likelihood of referral for prosecution.


A scientific review of law enforcement records has revealed that Alaska’s village public safety officers have advanced law enforcement’s response to cases of sexual abuse of minors in tribal communities, in terms of referrals for prosecution. Although VPSOs have not had a similar impact on referrals of sexual assault of native women generally, or in domestic violence cases, their presence has been generally beneficial.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant 2013-VW-CX-0001, awarded to the University of Alaska Anchorage. The article is based on the project report, “An Innovative Response to an Intractable Problem: Using Village Public Safety Officers to Enhance the Criminal Justice Response to Violence Committed Against Alaska Native and American Indian Women in Alaska’s Tribal Communities,” (2018), by Brad A. Myrstol.

Date Published: August 24, 2020