Haines Interim Police Chief Robert Griffiths’ last day with the department is Monday. Griffiths turned down the opportunity to be permanent chief, and is instead taking on the high-level job of Executive Director of the Alaska Police Standards Council in Juneau. Griffiths says his time in Haines was focused on making improvements to a department that has been damaged by disorganization and a revolving door of officers of chiefs.
“I was just talking with staff about regrets at not being able to accomplish many of the things that need to be done,” Griffiths said Friday. “And they very quickly reminded me that while there is a lot to do, we have made considerable progress.”
Griffiths had many challenges before him when he stepped in as interim chief. During his tenure, an audit of the police department commissioned by the borough came out. It detailed numerous failings in the department, from sloppy evidence handling to a fraught relationship with the community.
“I think [the audit] was a pivotal, key thing. It was something that was kind of a watershed moment for the department.”
Griffiths says everyone who has worked in the department has known there are issues. But the audit gave a framework for how to even begin to address them.
Griffiths has worked to make changes. The dispatch team now has a complete policies and procedures manual.
“It has everything to do from how do you handle a 911 call to how often do we feed our inmates, who are guests in our facility.”
He has also tried to establish more community trust, and encouraged his officers to do so as well.
“It’s been one of my more important messages to them is that law enforcement in the community requires an element of trust with the community members and that if they squander that, they’re not going to be able to solve crime or prevent crime.”
Griffiths says the main criminal problems he’s observed in Haines have to do with alcohol and drugs.
“I think that Haines has a far more substantial drug problem then any of our citizenry really appreciates.”
Heroin use has increased here, he says, just like in other parts of Alaska and the country.
“We do have heroin coming into town, it is available to those that choose to use it. And it’s extremely difficult for us to combat that in a community where we have a very small police force and ready access to aircraft and land and marine transportation.”
Griffiths says another challenge to combating heroin use is a shortage of drug treatment and rehabilitation options locally and in the state.
Griffiths says one of his regrets is that he’s leaving the department without a complete and fully trained slate of officers. The department filled one vacant officer job earlier this year with new hire Ryan Rutland, who still needs more training. Griffiths says he hopes to have another new officer in place by the time he leaves. That new hire is Brayton Long, a former Skagway police officer. Griffiths says temporary hire Ken VanSpronsen will be leaving early next year.
Sergeant Joshua Dryden will be acting chief as the borough searches for an interim. The borough is deciding what method to use in the search for a permanent chief.
“I think it’s going to be a bit of a chaotic circumstance for long-term types of decision making and progress. I’m hoping some of the planning I’ve done for them will help guide some of the decisions they have to make in the near future.”
Many community members said at public meetings that they wanted Griffiths to stay. But he says there are a couple reasons why he decided not to.
“The chief here is not just the chief, he is also a police officer. He responds in the middle of the night to domestic violence calls, to traffic accidents, to bar fights, to bears in the harbor. And he needs to be able to do all of those things physically.”
As he gets older, Griffiths says he’s more concerned about the physical toll policing takes. He was also ready to make an impact at a wider level, and the standards council job offers that.
Griffiths says from his six months here, he’s gathered that the next chief will have to be adept at community relations. Haines, he says, has a more engaged public than some of the other places he’s worked.
“Talk to the citizens and tolerate some of our more unique, outspoken individuals in the community and not take it personally. None of them are wrong, we have to respect those opinions.”
Griffiths says he’s offered to help the borough with the search for a new chief.
He says he’ll also be available to help with the work in continuing to implement changes that lay a more solid foundation for the Haines police department.