An external review of the Haines Police Department was released to the public recently. The study finds serious deficiencies that have contributed to ineffective policing. The $22,000 audit, by Gregory Russell of Soldotna-based Russell Consulting, is pushing the borough government to reckon with how to improve the many shortcomings of the Haines PD.
Russell says the department has suffered from a lack of vision and oversight that has left it with problems in need of ‘immediate attention.’ He drew those conclusions after observing the department, reviewing its policy, examining records, and talking to staff and community members during a week-long visit to Haines in March.
Russell says that previous police chiefs did not perform the expectations of an effective chief and did not establish a solid foundation to build a professional department.
“This is not a unique circumstance in Haines,” Russell said. “Many times it occurs not as, somebody doesn’t just say ‘hey let’s have a police department that’s substandard.’ But through inattention, through lack of follow-through or many times just through ignorance of what really needs to occur, these circumstances occur.”
Inattention and poor leadership have led to what Russell describes as ineffective services, low morale, personnel turnover, and a lack of confidence in the police that’s felt throughout the community. Russell says this failure doesn’t just fall on previous police chiefs, but also prior borough managers and assemblies.
“There were no surprises,” said Haines Borough Manager Dave Sosa, who requested the external audit. “What’s important is getting it down in writing, making it clear for everybody and making a commitment to do something about it. That’s what’s been lacking and we’ve got that now and we’re going to make a difference.”
Russell says within the department, he found ‘widespread feelings’ of lack of direction and follow through. Those feelings were echoed by community members he talked to.
Russell says the issues that have the highest liability have to do with organization of the evidence room, personnel recruitment, screening and hiring, and policy and procedures manuals.
He also recommended improvements to fleet equipment, staff development, training, inventory management, and jail maintenance.
The police chief who was in place while Russell conducted the audit was Bill Musser. Musser tendered his resignation in March and his last day was in May. Now, the police department is under the authority of Interim Chief Robert Griffiths. Griffiths will stay with the department until November.
Russell says hiring a quality chief is crucial. He says it’s important to have a leader who has a vision for department and who is willing to commit long-term to Haines.
“A new chief has the opportunity to reset the clock,” Russell said. “Not to be held accountable for previous administrations or actions and is able to go forward from that. I have literally seen good, effective police departments deteriorate when they get an ineffective or they made a poor choice with hiring a police chief.”
The Haines Public Safety Commission plans to hold a public hearing September 2nd to hear from community members about what they’d like to consider in the hiring of a new chief.
There are more jobs to be filled besides police chief. Right now, only one of three officer positions is filled with a permanent full-time employee. One of the officer posts is occupied by Ken VanSpronsen, who Sosa says is a temporary hire. The other officer position is vacant. So, the borough is currently recruiting for two officers and for police chief.
Sosa says there are some things making the recruiting process difficult.
“The reality is within the state of Alaska, there’s no secrets about our department and other departments,” Sosa said. “There’s a reason we’ve been having trouble hiring officers…because there’s a perception, and given the results of the audit, a correct perception, that there have been historical problems with the department.”
He says Haines also is on the lower end of the pay scale for police officers in Alaska. That’s another challenge in recruiting.
Now let’s get into some more details in the audit. Russell graded dispatch operations below standards. He says hiring and keeping highly trained emergency dispatchers must be a fundamental goal.
Russell says there are some infrastructure problems in dispatch as well. Right now, records management is outdated and unreliable. Current radio communication equipment leaves emergency personnel in some areas without communication or other dispatch resources.
Russell says dispatch is in need of a strengthened policy and procedures manual, as is the jail, property and evidence, and the department as whole. Russell says current manuals are outdated, not maintained or non-existent. He says a policy and procedures manual is ‘absolutely critical.’
“A policy manual captures relationship between a community and police department. That is what needs to be done. Procedures is ‘how?’ How are they going to capture their mission statement and vision? Putting that down on paper provides standard against which to measure performance, but also helps to deal with routine, regular or extraordinary circumstances as they occur.”
Russell says Haines PD is also below standards in its evidence handling. He says that necessary duty is often overlooked or disregarded. Russell recommends the department have an evidence custodian and limit access to the room.
Training is also an area Russell cites as being below standards. He says there are no training records or plans for personnel.
Russell says the police budget requires immediate attention. He says the budget is short-sighted and status quo. It doesn’t provide adequate detail for how money is to be spent. It also doesn’t reflect much of a plan for improvement of services.
Community-oriented policing: that’s what Russell thinks the department needs to hold as a goal.
“The bottom line is you can’t just hire more police officers and make your community feel safer or reduce crime,” Russell said. “It has to be a partnership. Partnerships are based on trust. The only way that’s going to occur is if you have communication. Meetings set up, problems are identified and solutions are sought.”
The only thing more critical than Russell’s review of the department are the comments he recorded from his interviews with 29 members of the public. Many of the residents had negative impressions of Former Police Chief Musser. Some didn’t even know the chief’s name. Many of the interviewees also complained about more long-term issues than just the one chief. Some said they were worried crimes including drug use were rising in Haines, and the police department had not proven themselves capable of solving and preventing those crimes.
Sosa and Griffiths say they have been addressing some of the immediate problems already. That includes things like putting locks on evidence lockers that didn’t have them and fixing radio communication equipment.
Sosa says he hopes to conduct this kind of external audit on the police department every three years. He says, if it is done again in three years, this is what he hopes will be different:
“Most importantly, as we go around talking to members of the community I’d like to hear them say that they’re proud of their police department, they appreciate the job that their officers are doing and they fully support them in their mission.”
The full police department audit is available at hainesalaska.gov.