Last week, a critical audit of the Haines Police Department was released to the public. The review said the department suffered from a lack of vision and oversight that left it with problems in need of ‘immediate attention.’ It also said that previous police chiefs did not lay a solid foundation for a professional department. Current Interim Police Chief Robert Griffiths says he is trying to change that.
“It’s living up to the challenge that I was advised that I faced if I were to come here,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths has previously worked in Anchorage and Cordova Police Departments. He says the Haines Police Department has a widespread reputation in Alaska’s law enforcement community.
“Well they know about the retention problem, the turnover issues,” he said. “The revolving chief’s door, so to speak. They didn’t keep people very long here. They knew that there were a few officers here that gained some notoriety for not being very professional. They’d established a legacy that had to be overcome by newcomers.”
Griffiths knows Gregory Russell, the consultant who visited Haines to conduct the audit of the police department. Griffiths says Russell told him he might be a good fit for the interim position. He replaced Bill Musser, who served as police chief for about a year and left the department in May.
As far as the results of the audit, nothing caught Griffiths off guard.
“No surprises whatsoever. Everything he said in there I had observed personally.”
Griffiths says he’s been clearing out old files and fixing lapses in evidence handling and jail maintenance. He’s working to streamline paperwork and boost morale.
“The department had become used to doing it in way in which they were comfortable with and they didn’t recognize how much wasted effort was going into doing it that way,” he said. “And it may have been ignorance on what was available to them to help them overcome it.”
Griffiths is also trying to help mend the relationship between the police and the community. Most of the members of the public who were interviewed as part of the audit expressed disappointment and distrust in the police.
“Restoring our relationships with the community, recovering a sense of trust from members of the community to the point where they’ll actually call us, there is a group in the community that will not talk to us because they felt they were mistreated in the past or their reports weren’t addressed appropriately,” Griffiths said.
He says one major challenge so far is working with a short-staffed force. The department used to have four officer positions, not including the chief. But the Haines Borough decided to downsize to three officers because of state funding cuts. Now, out of those three positions, two are filled, and one of those is by temporary hire.
“Part of the reason that the department is in the shape it’s in now is that they haven’t had consistent staffing to conduct training and detailed investigations that the community expected and that our profession demands,” he said.
Griffiths says there was a six-week time period where it was just him and one officer responding to calls and filling out reports. He says in order to address issues, staffing needs to be taken care of.
“How do we resolve all of the problems? Because there’s a lot of them. And the way you do it is one step at a time. And the first step is getting people hired.”
And it’s not just about filling the positions. It’s about hiring the right people. Borough Manager Dave Sosa told the public safety commission last week that the department needs to choose wisely when hiring.
“Having a department that actively seeks critique and is comfortable with critique and having an individual who will actively seek outside individuals to come in and screen the department is vital,” Sosa said. “There are some individuals who resist that. And we cannot have that.”
Griffiths thinks they’ve found the right people for the two officer jobs. He says there were about 20 applicants and he recently made offers to two people – one has verbally accepted. Griffiths says he will announce the new hires if and when they pass background checks. He hopes for them to start by October.
And then there’s the matter of hiring a permanent police chief. The public safety commission is holding a meeting on September 2nd to hear from the community about what they’d like to see in the next chief.
Griffiths says he is considering applying for the permanent job. But one thing holding him back is pay.
Sosa says he determines compensation for department heads on an ‘individual basis,’ and it’s up to the borough assembly to approve a proposed contract.
Whoever the next chief is, Griffiths says he or she will have a long way to go to address problems in the department and help improve the reputation of the Haines police.