Sitka police are defending their actions in the arrest of an 18-year-old man last year, who was tasered multiple times in his jail cell.
A Sitka teacher over the weekend posted a video showing the arrest of a Native high school student. The video has circulated widely in social media.
It’s not pretty to watch. Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt is candid about that.
“I think anytime the police are using force, it can be upsetting.”
Schmitt says he reviewed the video shortly after the arrest of Franklin Hoogendorn in September 2014. It shows two officers and a jailer escorting Hoogendorn into a Sitka jail cell (handcuffed behind his back), stripping him down to his underwear, and tasering him multiple times in the thigh while holding his arms and legs together behind his back in a move that is sometimes called “hog tying.”
But Schmitt says this isn’t the whole story.
“What you’re seeing in the video is the culmination of a longer contact.”
Schmitt says the scene in the jail cell began earlier in the evening, on the sidewalk in front of a Sitka bar, where the underage Hoogendorn had been trying to buy drinks. Schmitt says Hoogendorn was combative when officers initially approached him, and the struggle continued as he was taken into custody.
“You can’t see him fighting back. According to the officers, he was resisting in the jail cell. He was using his arms and legs to not comply. And he was doing so with force. The officer mentions several times that he was a very strong young man.”
The video was posted by Alexander Allison, a middle-school teacher in Sitka, who obtained it from Hoogendorn. The treatment of Hoogendorn struck a nerve, because he had a similar encounter with Sitka police a few months later.
Allison submitted a commentary to KCAW, describing his arrest in February while observing officers conduct a drunk driving investigation on an acquaintance, also outside a bar.
“Without being charged, without being read my rights, without being given a phone call, I was handcuffed, taken into custody, placed in a cell, stripped naked, given a concussion, and held until late the following morning. After being released, I was not arraigned for seven weeks. My arrest wasn’t reported in the local police blotter. Appearing in court, the district attorney pulled me aside, apologized for the circumstances, and offered to dismiss my charges of drunk and disorderly conduct, and criminal mischief for my behavior after my arrest. Though not physically resisting, I did not go quietly.”
Allison posted the proposed radio commentary along with the video in social media. The commentary is under review by a broadcasting attorney, because it alleges that two of the three officers involved in the Hoogendorn arrest had been involved in disciplinary action for excessive use of force. Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt says that one officer disciplined for using a taser against a man in Roswell, New Mexico, who subsequently died, was cleared of any wrongdoing along with his fellow officers at the time. Schmitt says the allegations against the second Sitka officer — involved in a shooting — have also been taken out of context.
But context doesn’t necessarily resolve one other aspect of this incident. In the video, after the three officers leave Hoogendorn prone and immobile on a plastic pad, stripped to his underwear, one of them utters a slur. It’s not racial, but it’s unprofessional.
Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt said, “It is. And we don’t want guys to say stuff like that, but it will give you insight into how he’s feeling at the time. That this is uncomfortable for them, and the guy is not cooperating at all with them. In fact, he’s fighting with them.”
KCAW attempted to reach Franklin Hoogendorn, but his phone wasn’t taking messages.
Alexander Allison, again in his commentary, says he thinks police in Sitka have crossed a line.
“But it is precisely because I care so deeply that I raise this alarm. If a teacher and a Native teenager can have their constitutional rights so grievously violated, it can happen to anyone: Your son or daughter, your husband or wife, your best friend who might have been out at a bar, or was pulled over for a failure to signal a turn. I know there are many good law enforcement officers, and they play an important and necessary role. I’m proud to say I have taught their children. But there has been a dangerous shift in department protocol, and this needs to be addressed.”
Chief Schmitt says his department has worked ceaselessly to build bridges in the community. He’s willing to talk about this topic with anyone. He also concedes that things could have been different.
“I think this video and the feedback has been negative, but I’m willing to dialogue and explain what we were trying to do that night. We’re not perfect, but in this instance the cops were trying to do the best they could. Could they have handled it differently? Yes. And in a way that wasn’t so negative-looking. I think they could have just simply backed out of the jail cell at that point, when he’s refusing to comply with what they wanted him to do.”
Schmitt says he’s been considering body cameras, long before they became a high-profile subject nationally. “More video will help us,” he says.