Haines residents need to decide how to pay for police protection outside of the townsite. Law enforcement in outlying areas of the Haines Borough has historically fallen to the Alaska State Troopers. But budget cuts and high crime in other parts of the state caused AST to withdraw from Haines earlier this year. It’s left the Haines police in a difficult situation, responding to emergencies outside of their normal jurisdiction with no long-term plan for how to pay for it.
“It wasn’t our intention to go from policing an area of 13.7 square miles to 2,300 square miles,” said Haines Police Chief Heath Scott.
Scott was on the job for about nine months when Alaska State Troopers decided to close its post in Haines. Since then, the police have responded to calls outside of their service area, including incidents that happen on the Haines Highway, which connects the southeast panhandle to Canada and the rest of the state.
The Haines Police Department is made up of four officers, including the chief. Scott said with each call dispatchers receive outside of the townsite, they have to decide whether it’s truly worthy of police response.
“We had a call at 31 Mile [Haines Highway] a couple weeks ago of a DUI driver,” Scott said. “We sent one officer out there. And what happened was we charged an individual for a DUI crime with a child in the car. But that was a one officer call, we had to send him out 31 miles and then we had to bring an officer on standby here.”
The question Scott and interim borough manager Brad Ryan have for the community is this: do you want the police to continue responding to emergency calls in outlying parts of the borough? And if so, how do you propose paying for it?
“We could on July 1 just say ‘well, we’re not going to respond outside the townsite at all,'” said Ryan.
The borough’s attorney advised that they could do this, but should provide significant warning beforehand.
Other options include expanding the police service area beyond the townsite. That would require a vote of the people. Creating a new service area would also require a public vote. Both alternatives would probably trigger a sales or property tax increase.
“So we could create new service areas with a lower level of service,” Ryan said. “Emergency response only for out the highway, Mud Bay and Lutak.”
He mentioned that Haines isn’t the first Alaska community to face this conundrum. Girdwood and other Turnagain Arm communities are also losing trooper service. Girdwood is now contracting with the Whittier Police Department. Other Turnagain Arm communities recently voted to tax themselves to pay for service from the Anchorage Police Department.
Ryan and Scott held two meetings to hear from residents, especially those living outside the townsite. At the most recent meeting, Mud Bay residents said they didn’t feel like there was a lot of crime in their area to begin with. Chief Scott responded.
“Quite frankly, I think you guys have very few calls at Mud Bay [Road],” Scott said. “Lutak [Road] is probably the same way. The majority of our resources outside the townsite are probably going to the Haines Highway up the road.”
Some residents asked if it would be possible for Mud Bay Road, Lutak Road and the highway to vote on different levels of police service, or to pay different amounts. Ryan said it may be possible, but complicated.
At an assembly meeting, Ryan explained his takeaway from the two town halls.
“They all seem to agree that they want police response outside the townsite.” Ryan said. “The big question is at what level? And how do we pay for it? And for the most part they don’t want to increase their taxes, that’s not surprising. But the question that is unanswered is what now?”
A proposal to expand the police service area or create new service areas can come from either the public or the assembly. At this point, no specific plan has been introduced.
The assembly is set to make a decision soon about whether to fund a five-person police force, instead of the current four. But Chief Scott says if voters do decide to extend police response for the whole borough, even an expanded department of five officers would not be sufficient.
The conversation about policing outside the townsite will continue at a public safety commission meeting Thursday evening.