Budget and staffing woes lead Haines police chief to suggest ending 24-hour service

Haines Police Department. (KHNS file photo)

The Haines Police Department has officers on patrol or on call 24 hours a day. But at Wednesday evening’s Public Safety Commission meeting the department raised this question: is that what Haines wants?

It’s a question of funding and personnel. Police Chief Heath Scott said five officers is not adequate to serve the Haines Borough around the clock. He introduced an idea that drew nervous laughter at the Public Safety Commission meeting.

“We unburden ourselves from the concept that we need to be a 24/7 agency with five officers, reduce service with operations, and we come up with the concept of open and close hours, such as, maybe it’s [8 a.m.] to midnight,” he said.

Scott told the committee that the department needs additional funding to maintain six officers. That’s the minimum number recommended by the Department of Justice for a 24-hour department. It currently has four officers. Scott hopes to hire a fifth officer by next month. He argues that more robust staffing will further stabilize the department.

The department’s budget has grown by nearly 25 percent since Scott took over in 2016. It is just over $1 million including dispatch services. That’s still less than SkagwayPetersburgCraig and Wrangell police departments. Haines Finance Director Jila Stuart said different municipalities structure their funding differently, so a straight budget comparison doesn’t always tell the whole story.

As the budget has increased, data shows that the department is more effective. A 2015 management audit found the department to be “ineffective.” Turnover was high. Morale was low. Scott took over in 2016 and not a single officer left the department for almost four years. Public complaints have tapered off.

Commission member Dana Hallett lives outside of the police service area. He said he’s interested in seeing options for cost savings.

“Where I live, we don’t expect the kind of service that we get in town and it is cheaper to provide the kind of service that we do get out the road. So maybe there are some compromises? Probably not a good way to phrase that, but maybe there are some functions that are  taking place in the town site that really isn’t absolutely needed,” he said.

Commission member Kelly Williamsen is on-call for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium behavioral health clinic 24 hours a day. The idea of closed hours for the Police Department doesn’t work for her.

“SEARHC Behavioral Health cannot not have 24/7 coverage, period. That’s a, that’s a complete, that changes my entire… We cannot operate without… No way. Absolutely not negotiable,” she said.

She said her staff cannot respond to certain calls without an accompanying law enforcement officer. A 2 a.m. call from a suicidal client was her example.

The commission asked Scott to come up with a budget for several different staffing options by next week: a six-member department, a five-member department and a not 24-hour department. Their job is to decide how robust a police department the borough needs. The commission plans to make its recommendation to the borough assembly sometime in March.