Haines Borough Police Chief Gary Lowe this week told the borough assembly that I “threatened” him with negative coverage if he didn’t provide the newspaper with “confidential” police information. These are the facts:
For about a decade, and until Lowe’s hire, news reporters collected items for the “police blotter” from a log of police calls kept at the station.
Though sometimes mundane and even comic, the “blotter” provided citizens with important information regarding public safety, items such as a bear repeatedly getting into a dumpster at the Senior Center, a break-in on Union Street or phone scams targeting seniors.
Under an informal agreement with the department, reporters removed names and wrote up “the blotter” in a way that didn’t identify victims of crimes, perpetrators or witnesses. The weekly report gave residents an overview of their business with police. There weren’t problems with the practice, according to former police chief Greg Goodman.
When Lowe was hired, he discontinued the practice of providing police reports. Instead, Lowe had dispatchers remove specific information from reports, providing a rewritten and “sanitized” version to the press.
Because items were so cleansed of facts to be almost meaningless – a recent item read “cash was reported stolen from a Haines Highway residence” – reporters instituted weekly meetings with Lowe to get details enough on the reports to make them useful to the public.
This system was inefficient, costing the Haines Borough and the Chilkat Valley News time and money, as dispatchers were paid to remove facts from reports, and reporters were then paid to interview the chief to get facts back in.
The system also led to errors, as it added three layers of interpretation to original reports – the first by the dispatcher, the second by the chief (who typically did not have first-hand information about the reports) and the third by the reporter.
The Chilkat Valley News recently held meetings with Lowe, manager Mark Earnest and Mayor Stephanie Scott, requesting a return to the system that existed prior to Lowe’s arrival, when reporters arrived at the police station and were handed the log of calls.
Besides obvious inefficiencies with Lowe’s system, the newspaper made the request because we have strong evidence to believe that on Nov. 4, 2010, and Feb. 7, 2013, Lowe deliberately withheld or curtailed information from police reports as retribution against the newspaper for stories about the police department that he didn’t like.
In a meeting last month attended by the borough manager, I told Lowe that if the issue were not resolved to our satisfaction, the newspaper might write a story about the matter. I told Lowe that if the quality of information the public gets about police matters has suffered, our readers deserved to know why.
I hoped to resolve this matter outside of the newspaper columns. Lowe has decided otherwise.
Lowe this week characterized our disagreement with his department as the reason behind coverage of complaints about him from within the police department. It’s not. The chief is responsible for public safety in most of the town. He supervises nine employees and oversees a $900,0000 budget. Concerns about his leadership are newsworthy, particularly ones originating from his staff.
-– Tom Morphet