After a turbulent year, Sitka finally has a new police chief. Robert Baty has worked in various law enforcement positions across the state for the past 33 years, from homicide investigator to composite artist. Now he’s ready to take on challenges within a department that have spawned 3 lawsuits in 10 months, and once again to call Sitka home.
Sitka’s new police chief Robert Baty didn’t always want to be a cop.
“At a certain point I was actually debating whether or not I wanted to be a full-time artist or a cop, a trooper,” he said during an interview with KCAW earlier this month. “The conclusion I came to was I could always be an artist but I couldn’t always be a cop.”
The self-described “Coast Guard brat” grew up in Juneau, and lived all over the U.S. before returning to Sitka when he was 17 and his father was stationed on the cutter Woodrush. The son of the late Byron F. and Lorena Baty, he lived in Sitka through his teens and early twenties. He even opened a gym here, Body World Gym, but he got a taste for policing while working as a security guard at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital.
“I remember there was one hostage instance at the hospital that I was involved in. Calling the Sitka police over and getting a resolution,” he said. “Just having little interactions like that.”
Inspired, in 1986 he went to the Trooper Academy and he’s been policing in Alaska ever since. He’s done it all, from working undercover to major homicide investigations to working as a trooper in the bush. And at one point in his career, he even figured out a way to incorporate his artistic abilities.
“Years back when I was working homicide, we’d get a whodunit, and we’d have to have a composite artist try to make a drawing of the suspect,” Baty said. The current composite artist was leaving the department, but he taught Baty a few things first. “I practiced on my own and developed into a pretty decent composite artist.”
He remembers his first sketch, when a female nurse was attacked by an unknown man in Bethel. He flew to Bethel and drew a composite of the suspect. That night, it was in the Tundra Drum, which circulated to Bethel’s 56 surrounding villages. People started calling in and several tipped off the department correctly, based on Baty’s sketch.
“The amazing thing to me though was that the suspect lived 130 miles away,” he said.
But Baty’s favorite police work isn’t beat cop work or drawing composite sketches, though he says leading a SWAT team was exhilarating. Rather, he’s done his favorite work — community outreach — as a police chief. He’s held the position in several cities, including the Southeast community of Yakutat. He led their department for four years.
“When I was in Yakutat we used to have this group of gentlemen, citizens that would meet every morning for coffee at Malott’s Store. I would make it a point to get there 2-3 times a week, and just visit with them,” Baty said. “I was able to hear what the concerns of the community were and express some of my own, and get feedback.”
And he says he wants to bring that community energy back to the Sitka Police Department, which has been embroiled in controversy over the past year. Since August 2018 the city has seen a whistleblower lawsuit and a harassment suit filed by two former detectives, and a third suit filed by a former jailer. All are in ongoing litigation.
“I know as of recently we’ve had some black eyes. My goal is to re-establish that professionalism within the department,” Baty said. “You follow the rules, you have accountability, you are a part of the community.”
He’s been on the job as interim chief since April 1, and he said so far he thinks it’s going well.
“No change is fast. But on the other hand, I came in here and turned everything upside down, all with the goal, as I’ve told my officers, of doing the right thing for the right reason,” he said.
But how do you make big changes on a smaller budget? City belt-tightening could mean less travel for professional development. Baty said a lot of that training to improve procedures can happen in-house, and it’s already started.
“Since day one, I recognize there were a lot of things that need to be addressed. That day I set a meeting with my sergeants. Since then we’ve had training every Tuesday since, usually entails about two or three hours of reviewing policies and procedures,” he said. “A lot of this stuff, it truly is just mentorship, and I think you can learn a lot from other leaders that way.”
And officers have been pushing for a new police building. Baty said it’s likely needed, but he anticipates the department will have to work with what they have for the time being.
“We’re fixing it up, moving some offices around with the hopes that sometime in the future, if it happens, we’ll be ready to make that move,” he said.
Now that Baty has been hired on, there’s one more hurdle: The Sitka Assembly has to approve the hire of all department heads. Assembly members twice voted against hiring the last department head, the planning director, with some members balking at the salary offer of $93,000. But Baty is determined to make Sitka his home.
“My goal is to be here long term. I’m 56 years old right now, I’d love to spend another 10 years policing and being the chief here,” he said. “I think I’d still be viable and young enough and viable to keep the department on track.”
Baty succeeds former chief Jeff Ankerfelt, who retired this year.