When they cautiously entered the house, what they found was his partner's relative, pointing a gun at them. It wasn't until afterward my legs started shaking. Twenty-nine years later, the Inupiaq-born Masters is still at the front lines of law enforcement in Alaska, this time as Commissioner of Public Safety. And instead of walking a beat, Masters is quietly and consistently spearheading one of the most important developments going on in rural Alaska — ensuring that every community that wants a law enforcement officer gets one.
The plan is part of Gov. But the energy and know-how behind the effort is Masters'. As the only Alaskan to have served in every single branch of law enforcement in the state, Masters intimately knows the obstacles that Alaska Natives face when it comes to ensuring the safety of their residents. And it's this achingly personal perspective that gives Masters the determination and experience to make this initiative work. Pay was dismally low, there were no benefits, and housing was inadequate.
The village police were notoriously overworked and underpaid — the same as when Masters took the helm as commissioner in It was all happening back then as well," Masters said. Masters is as humble as he is experienced. His office bears few signs of the many awards and accomplishments he has earned. But of all his honors, it is a small wooden plaque with simple brown inscription that has the most significance to Masters — the Alaska Federation of Natives' Glenn Godfrey Law Enforcement Award, which he received a year ago.
Masters first learned that he had been nominated for the award by accident, when he was serving on a nominee reviewing committee for AFN. When he recognized his name on the roster of candidates, he immediately tried to withdraw his nomination, said Gail Schubert, president of Bering Straits Native Corp. Under Masters' leadership, the VPSO program has witnessed the kind of overhaul that villages have been desperately requesting for years, and that rural legislators and his predecessor, former Commissioner Walter Monegan, have worked toward as well.
For the first time, they now receive liability insurance, as well as longevity and step increases. VPSOs get 10 weeks of training now, up from the six to eight weeks that used to be offered. VPOs only receive two weeks of training, and that's not enough, Masters said. You get what you invest.
Studies show that when a VPSO is hired in a community, the rate of serious physical injury is reduced 40 percent, while the prosecution rate for a sexual assault is three and a half times higher, Masters said. VPOs are hired by the village to perform the duties of police officers and generally receive limited training, about two weeks.
Most VPO departments are funded from a village's revenue or from federal grants, usually from the Department of Justice. A lot of the departments employ VPOs either on a part time basis or seasonally, though some have full-time work. VPSOs are employees of the local regional nonprofit organization, contracted by the state troopers to administer the VPSO program in their region.
Duties can be very similar in regard to investigation of misdemeanor crimes and village ordinance violations. However VPSOs also work with search and rescue, emergency management services and fire departments in their villages. VPOs generally do not. All this couldn't be accomplished without the support of the Native nonprofit organizations and village and tribal councils that manage the program, as well as crucial funding by the Alaska State Legislature, Masters said.
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By , there was funding for positions, with 88 of those filled in 74 rural communities. This spring, the Alaska Legislature voted to approve funding for 15 new positions in , which will bring the number of VPSOs to The restructuring of pay and benefits have made a difference, with recruitment and retention improving in portions of the state, said Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, one of the many rural legislators who has been working for years to obtain more funding for law enforcement in the villages.
Now it does. He's walked in their shoes and he's able to identify with the VPSOs.
Masters was born to an Inupiaq mother, Lena Gonangon, who fell in love with a Greek-American airman stationed outside of her hometown of Unalakleet, back when it served as a Cold War aircraft early-warning site. By the time he was 1, Masters' parents had divorced. His newly single mother packed up her twin boys and their older brother, Nicholas, and moved back to Alaska to start a new life.
They settled in Seldovia, where she remarried a fisherman. Masters' early years became a tangle of moves between the fishing towns of Seldovia, Unalaska and later, Illinois, his stepfather's childhood home. He believes his mother had been trying to distance her children from a family atmosphere rife with alcoholism and violence, "to protect us from problems from abuse.
They moved once more to Unalaska, where Masters graduated from high school in His stepfather urged him to consider a career in the Air Force. Instead, Masters serendipitously stumbled upon a temporary job at the police station in Unalaska, as a night dispatcher and a correctional officer, to "basically commandeer the people who were in jail," he said. Going back to Unalakleet brought him back to his Inupiaq roots — he is the descendent of Chief Nashalook, the last traditional chief of Unalakleet.
It also opened his eyes to the harsh realities of being a village police officer in Western Alaska. Masters received encouragement from the elders in Unalakleet. And despite the dangers, the work was exciting to him. The rest were left in the unorganized borough. There has been over the years an adaptation more along the lines that had been initially conceived and establishment of the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, some larger boroughs that incorporated on their own, follow the principles set forth in the constitution, both in terms of what a borough should be and the concept of home rule.
The concept itself is workable. It was emotionally a tremendous high. It was intellectually a phenomenal achievement in terms of working with a group of people who came from all different parts of Alaska from all different directions and creatively worked together. It was such a marvelous experience because it was not just mutually reinforcing in terms of coming together but sort of reaching a higher and higher level.
The respect that one gained for fellow delegates for Bill Egan as a presiding officer was something that was incomparable to serving in the legislature. After I served in the Constitutional Convention I was elected to return to the legislature. Later I served in the state senate. There is just no comparison to the — between legislative process and the constitution writing process.
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It was truly a highlight and nothing else could come close to it. You look at all aspects. You have a common goal. In the legislature you are dealing with a lot of different pieces. You have the Republicans. You have Democrats. You have your caucuses. You have lobbyists who are constantly after you to do this or do that. There are — you have a governor who is harassing your department heads and special interests. The budget is to be divvied up here and there and so on. In the Constitutional Convention you are not trying to get ahead of anybody.
Alaska's top cop, Inupiaq Joe Masters aims to improve village safety
He lives in Anchorage and is a professor emeritus with UAA. He published an autobiography in October So Vic, welcome and I mean thanks for welcoming us into your home. What — how did you end up here? Vic: Well, I had this dream of coming to Alaska, which came to me while I was on the troop ship during World War II and going from New York over to France and I was thinking about my future and what I would do professionally and where I would like to end up and I started thinking about going west because I was going to the University of Wisconsin and I thought well I like Wisconsin so the further west I go the better I might like it.
So after the war I went back to Wisconsin and then went on to graduate school and received a degree in city planning. And just as I received that degree the first full time professional planning job opened up in Alaska. Terence: I was just thinking, could you hear that plane, Tim? Just starting right now.
Tim: I was speculating on the thing. Terence: Okay. What kind of stuff did you have to do for them? What was the —. Vic: The job of town planner was something plan new and in a way was exploring, but BLM was developing townsites, some new locations, plotting, new townsites, and so that involved selling off lots. And then the first pulp mill was announced in Ketchikan so Frank Heintzleman asked that I come down to Ketchikan and look at the possibility of a new town being established in connection with the pulp mill at Ward Cove and so I spent a week in Ketchikan and so it was a great opportunity to see Alaska.
Other aspects were some townsite addition and plotting in the Anchorage area. Lot subdivisions at Indian as the road was being opened up. Worked in Soldotna and various other places. One of the things I did was lay out a plan for Cantwell, for a townsite at Cantwell, which was subsequently surveyed. Also developed a plan for a new townsite at Kasilof, which never did materialize.
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Then sold lots for a townsite at Portage, which was then already pretty swampy and after the earthquake that sank completely, so there is hardly a trace left of what was there once. So it was very interesting job that took me all over Alaska.
Terence: Let me think now. I just lost my train of thought. If during that time so you did that about a year Vic or a year and a half or how long did you work for BLM before you went over to the City? Terence: Yeah, what were the challenges? Was Elmer still the city planning I guess it was a small volunteer commission or something?
Was he still chairman and then what were the challenges that Anchorage in particular faced sort of from the planning?
minenocuff.ml Vic: When I to work as planning director for Anchorage, Elmer Rasmuson was the chairman of the city planning commission and there were all sorts of things to do. One of the things the planning commission wanted was a new zoning ordnance because the one that was ineffective and copied from some town in Oregon and actually had references to county and other things that were irrelevant to Anchorage and they wanted something more adaptive to a growing city.