May 3, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 18

Police hope local hire stems turnover

Haines Borough Police Chief Gary Lowe said he’s pursuing local hire in the wake of resignations from the department.

Recent departures have reduced the force to Lowe and officers Simon Ford and Jason Rettinger, who both lived in Haines before starting careers in law enforcement.

Lowe moved from Illinois to become Haines Police chief in June 2008 but said the past four years have made him leery of hiring applicants who haven’t lived in Alaska.

“Especially with Simon Ford and Jason Rettinger, to get someone who is local and he’s in the community and is established here, if they’ve got the right characteristics, we can teach them what they need to know to be a police officer,” Lowe said.

Ford was sworn in as an officer in June 2010, and previously worked in Haines as a grocery store butcher. Rettinger is a 1993 graduate of Haines High School, served as a Haines Police officer from 2002 to 2004, and rejoined the force in August.

Since April 2011, officers John Havard, Jason Joel, Kevin Kennedy and Cassandra McEwen resigned from the department. Kennedy and McEwen were convicted of crimes committed while they were employed as officers and Joel left under questionable circumstances. Havard returned to family in Palmer.

Lowe said he has two replacements lined up to bring the department to full staff. The men, resident Adam Patterson and Joshua Knore of Ohio, paid their own way to train at a police academy in Fairbanks and are set to graduate this month.

Patterson had long shown interest in a job with the department and “is very well-liked in the community,” Lowe said. He said Knore, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, showed commitment to the position by visiting Haines.

Lowe said he told Knore “I’ve had some really bad experiences with people down south who want to come up here and be police officers.” He gave Patterson and Knore a conditional offer of employment, with stipulations for a background investigation, medical examination and psychological evaluation.

Lowe said that those checks have been standard for the department, including for past hires. “They’re thorough in testing what they’re supposed to test for,” but not necessarily accurate predictors of who will thrive in a rural environment, he said. “I don’t think the screening is going to be able to take that out.”

Job postings often draw interest from applicants who think it would be “really cool” to live in Alaska, Lowe said, but they “really don’t comprehend it until they get here.” He said family members might struggle to find a job in Haines and the isolation is another hurdle.

At a March meeting of the Haines Borough Assembly, resident Paul Nelson expressed skepticism about the overall police budget and the size of the squad.

“It seems like we’re constantly pouring money into our police department,” Nelson said. “Those of you that have been here as long as I have know that there were times when we had the same population we have today, and there was one policeman and there was no dispatch, so I’m just curious why we continually need five or six policemen – whatever we have – when it just doesn’t seem like there’s a need for it.”

Lowe said a five-member team is necessary to provide “24/7 coverage.” He said the department already is a lean operation, and Alaska Municipal League information shows that officer salaries are “if not at the very bottom, very close to the very bottom.”

Officers in the department start at $22.14 an hour. With 100 overtime hours and 265 standby hours, total starting pay is $51,426. Lowe makes $84,000, which includes working 265 standby hours.

Lowe said he thinks officer pay is a factor in turnover, but that other issues, including the remoteness of the town, play a bigger factor. He declined to seek increased pay for officers when questioned about department turnover during a borough budget discussion last month.

Turnover takes a toll on officers who remain, Lowe said this week. When resignations leave police with a smaller crew, officers battle burnout. “They don’t get time off, and are on-call constantly.”