Things are not looking good for Haines’ Alaska State Trooper post. AST Director Colonel James Cockrell intends to reassign Haines’ one trooper position to Bethel. The decision isn’t final yet, but the community conversation about how to handle the loss continued at a Public Safety Commission meeting this week.
Colonel Cockrell says the level of crime in Western Alaska is the main reason to move funding for a Haines trooper to Bethel. In an email to KHNS, he said AST wants to assign the trooper to the Violent Offenders Unit in Bethel. Cockrell says the region served by the unit is ‘plagued with a high rate of interpersonal violence.’
Cockrell says he hopes to make a final decision by next week.
Haines still has a wildlife trooper, also known as a ‘brown shirt.’ But his main focus is on enforcing hunting and fishing regulations. The ‘blue shirt’ trooper job has been vacant since December. That’s shifted more of a burden onto Haines police, who are responding to calls outside the townsite that the ‘blue shirt’ trooper would have covered before.
The public safety commission has been talking about how to deal with this for the past couple months.
“The HPD is already responding to the outer borough,” Commission Chair Jim Stanford said at a meeting Tuesday. “The question is, how does the borough pay for this in a fair way?”
Stanford drew up a list of four options. One, bill the state for outer-borough law enforcement. Two, expand the police department borough-wide. Three, broaden the current borough-wide medical services area to include emergency police response. Or four, create a village public safety officer position, also known as a VPSO, to be stationed out the highway.
“There’s a lot of different feelings on this and I don’t know that I personally want to pick any one of these,” Stanford said. “Because I think any borough-wide change in anything is going to require a vote of the people.”
Instead of recommending one of those four options, the commission voted to send the list to the manager and assembly.
The extra work caused by the vacant trooper post is happening while the Haines Police Department is already understaffed, according to Chief Heath Scott.
The department was downsized a couple years ago from five to four officers, mainly due to state budget cuts. There’s been significant turnover in the department since then. Scott has been on the job about seven months and he does not think the current set-up is sustainable. He hopes to bring the department back up to five officers.
“We’ve demonstrated to the public and to the public safety committee that we’re underfunded and under-resourced,”Scott said.
The police department’s expenses were consistently over-budget for the first six months of the current fiscal year. So, Scott has asked the assembly for a budget amendment of $60,000. That amendment was introduced at the last assembly meeting and will go through two more public hearings.
Scott says part of the over-spending comes down to the amount of overtime the four officers have to put in.
Commission Chair Jim Stanford made a motion to support Scott’s request to restore staffing.
“We have repeatedly, all of us, said that we need to support the new police chief,” Stanford said. “And in the wake of the overtime that’s being paid to officers that would almost certainly compensate for another officer, it just makes sense scheduling-wise to make it easier on the officers we have, because I think some of them are stressed and they’re beginning to show it in places.”
The commission unanimously supported the motion.
So, the borough has two more financial questions to deal with: whether to increase the size of the police department and how to cover what looks to be a permanent loss in trooper service.