Police across Southeast Alaska are defining and using force differently

Haines Borough Public Safety Building, where the Haines Borough Police Department is headquartered. (Photo by KHNS)

Calling “the police” in Southeast Alaska could mean summoning an officer from one of more than a dozen different law enforcement agencies depending where you are.

That’s the reality in the United States where most police are local. 

There are between 17,000 and 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States,” said Troy Payne of the Alaska Justice Information Center Director.  “And many of them are quite small. Many of them are, you know, a few dozen officers or less.”

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That’s certainly the case in coastal Alaska which has about 14 police agencies — again, depending on how you count.

“So if you really want to know how policing is done in the United States, you’ve got to get down to the lowest unit of government that provides law enforcement services, and you know, in your neighborhood where you live,” he said.

A series of records requests filed by CoastAlaska this summer has produced nearly every policy manual or use of force policy used by police departments across the region. 

A review found stark differences. 

Take the use of deadly force, for example.  

Ketchikan, Wrangell and Sitka instruct officers to exhaust all alternatives before firing their weapons. Others don’t. 

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Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson
Former Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson demonstrates how officers saw Jeremie Tinney hold an object that appeared to be a rifle during an officer-involved shooting on Dec. 3, 2016. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

Most departments only authorize the deadly use of force on someone threatening to kill or seriously injure somebody, or if someone is armed and fleeing a felony arrest. But in Hoonah and Yakutat, officers can use deadly force against a rape suspect caught in the act, or a robbery suspect — whether they’re armed or not. 

Payne said departments have historically resisted sharing these kinds of guidelines given to officers. 

“In part, that’s because there’s a fear that the bad guys will, will learn how they do things and adapt their methods and response. And some of that’s legitimate. There’s this growing movement for a lot more transparency than has been present historically,” he said.

Nearly every city and borough provided police department policy manuals in full. There were exceptions: In Klawock, city officials discovered they didn’t have one. The city administrator said they’re working on one now given the added scrutiny on police and how they do their jobs. 

I think right now, most chiefs around the Southeast most departments are erring on the side of transparency as a means to re-engage trust in communities based on the national discussion that’s going on,” said Haines Police Chief Heath Scott. 

 Scott previously worked as deputy chief in the District of Columbia overseeing hundreds of officers. In Haines, he has five.

He said when he was hired in 2016 the department’s policies file was thin. 

They had just started looking at their policies,” he said. “They had about 14, I believe.”

Over the next two years he said he worked to overhaul and set out what he felt were modern standards for his officers in how they handle evidence, use force and deal with allegations of misconduct.  

A policy manual guides administrative codes of conduct. More serious offenses can end up being prosecuted. And that usually gains the attention of a state panel that’s empowered to pull a police officer’s certificate. Sworn officers need to be certified to work in Alaska. 

The board is called the Alaska Police Standards Council and it’s made up of a mix of police chiefs and civilians.  That board’s current executive director, Bob Griffith is a veteran of small town police departments. In fact, Heath Scott in Haines took over for him when he retired. 

Heath (Scott) ended up inheriting some of the rather lax policy — I shouldn’t say lax — but some of the policies that needed modernization from my administration,” Griffith said. 

Griffith said he’s been in agencies before that had no policy and procedure manuals and had to start from scratch to develop them. 

“Quite frankly, we stole from the best, and used those policies as templates, and adapted our own policy based on the agency in the community,” he said. 

Another place where Southeast Alaska police departments differ is how they use potentially deadly force, such as chokeholds. 

The infamous carotid hold was used by a Minneapolis police officer on George Floyd whose death caused a nationwide uproar. 

That move is completely banned by Craig’s police department on Prince of Wales Island. But in Wrangell it’s authorized as a “non-lethal” measure. In other jurisdictions it’s considered lethal force. 

A police vehicle leads the 2019 Fourth of July parade. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)
A police vehicle leads the 2019 Fourth of July parade. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

“Out of out of an abundance of caution, I think most departments are going the way that that we are in Haines,” said Police Chief Scott. “And that’s to use it in association with deadly force if it was an option that you needed to save yourself or another than it would be afforded to you, but we do not want our officers using it outside of the deadly force circumstance.”

How force is reported also varies by department. Some require a police officer to report the threat of force — such as if they unholster their gun and point it at someone. Others only consider actual physical force used.

The FBI rolled out the first national database on local departments’ use of force last year. The data hasn’t been released yet.

“There’s this growing movement for a lot more transparency than has been present historically,” Payne said. “So that’s a start, right, is that we can do things like putting policy manuals, online or otherwise making easily available so that people can look at the use of force policy in particular, but other policies that the agency has, and really start asking, okay, well, what why does this policy exist, and how is it enforced? And is this really what our community wants?”

These policy manuals are administrative guidelines and won’t automatically shield a police officer from prosecution. 

But they do provide a framework of how they’re expected to conduct themselves. And they’re open to scrutiny at the community level.

Police operations manuals and use of force policies: