At a meeting Monday, the Haines Public Safety Commission recommended the borough act to address out-of-townsite law enforcement in the wake of a state trooper vacancy. But they delayed a recommendation on whether to expand the local police force to five officers.
Haines’ only Alaska State Trooper post is vacant, and it may stay that way for good. Budget cuts and rising crime in Western Alaska have pressured Troopers to consider closing the Haines post. If it is filled, it won’t be until August at the earliest.
Since Trooper Andrew Neason left in December, the Haines Police picked up the slack responding to outer-borough calls.
“We had two [outside townsite] calls in the last 72 hours,” Police Chief Heath Scott said. “[Officer Chris Brown] responded out to 31 Mile Saturday, resulted in a DUI arrest, as well as a child endangerment case that we opened up. And I responded Friday with a DNR trooper out there as well for another matter.”
The commission talked about possible ways to fund out-the-road enforcement. Chair Jim Stanford lives outside of the townsite himself, in Mosquito Lake. He floated the idea of changing the borough-wide medical service area to an ‘emergency services’ service area. Instead of paying just for ambulance response, it would also cover police emergency response and search and rescue. Stanford speculated it could mean a half a percent or one percent increase in sales tax.
“That to me seems like the most painless and palatable way to do this, to increase some funding to help the police pay for those calls to the outer borough,” Stanford said.
The other commissioners agreed. Judy Ewald, who used to live out the Haines Highway, said it might be more suitable to pay just for police emergency response outside town, not proactive law enforcement.
“Most of the ones out the highway, I don’t think they want a policeman driving by on patrol,” Ewald said. “But they do want somebody to come in an emergency and help them.”
Assemblyman Tom Morphet, who is the liaison to the commission, said out-the-road residents haven’t spoken up about what they want. Here’s Stanford, with Morphet responding.
“What do you think the people that made those two 911 calls would say, Tom?” Stanford asked.
“Well, they might the beginning of the constituency that should be here saying ‘We want a police officer out at 35 Mile, how are you going to get us one?'” Morphet responded.
Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer, who was in the audience, said the borough should be careful not to put the local trooper post in even more jeopardy.
“If we expand the service area, isn’t the state just gonna say, ‘Great, we never have to put a trooper there again. You eliminate our jurisdiction, so forget it,'” Friedenauer said.
The commission made a few recommendations to begin addressing what to do about outside town policing. All of their suggestions go through the assembly. First, the commission recommended the manager talk to the state about reimbursement for outer-borough response. The commission also wants the borough to investigate what percentage sales tax hike would cover outside-townsite policing.
The commission delayed taking a stance on police staffing. Chief Scott wants the borough to expand the police force by hiring a fifth officer.
“I think a safe approach is in FY 18, adding an additional officer,” Scott said. “Going back to the five officers you had.”
Former Manager Dave Sosa froze the hiring of a fifth police officer in 2015 (with assembly approval) in response to state budget cuts to the community jails program. After turnover in both the manager and police chief jobs, the department is now fighting to restore the fifth position.
Resident Paul Nelson objected to the idea.
“This is the police asking for more police,” Nelson said. “This is not the people asking for more police.”
Officer Chris Brown responded to that, saying it wasn’t a selfish request. He said average residents don’t see the level of crime happening in Haines.
“The drug problem isn’t getting any better,” Brown said. “If it was, it would be the only community in Alaska that it was getting better in. It’s only getting worse. We’re asking for more police for the kids of this community, for the good people of this community.”
The public safety commission plans to weigh in on the issue at its next meeting, Feb. 21. Stanford says he wants to get a better idea of how towns like Skagway, Wrangell and Petersburg pay for their police forces.
Ultimately, expanding the police department will be up to the borough manager and assembly. The manager will present a proposed budget to the assembly by April.