The Sitka Assembly is forming a subcommittee that will explore a potential investigation of the Sitka Police Department. The vote to form the subcommittee passed unanimously after assembly members learned of a third lawsuit involving the department at their Tuesday night meeting.
In January, Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt approached the Sitka Assembly about raising officer salaries in an attempt to curb turnover. His request prompted a public discussion about workplace culture within the department. And at Tuesday night’s meeting, assembly members Valorie Nelson and Kevin Mosher continued that discussion, asking if the other assembly members would consider an outside investigation of police procedures and practices.
“In light of the fact that we have two active litigations pending and now, tonight, we learn of a third one, I think that it would behoove to not bury our heads in the sand and realize that there could possibly be a problem there and do something about it,” Nelson said.
“I wouldn’t mind if we could have an independent investigation into the practices of the police department to make sure it’s being run in a healthy, positive manner,” Mosher added.
Last fall, two officers filed suit against the city. Patrol officer Mary Ferguson filed suit in October, alleging that she had been sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace. And in August, officer Ryan Silva filed suit alleging that he had been demoted for blowing the whistle on improper procurement practices in the the department.
Now a third employee alleges he suffered slander and abuse as a result of misconduct by upper management in the department. Noah Shepard, a former jailer and patrol recruit, is being represented by the Northern Justice Project, the same firm representing Silva and Ferguson. He spoke to the assembly during persons to be heard about the lawsuit he filed with Sitka Superior Court on Monday that named both the city of Sitka and police Lieutenant Lance Ewers as defendants.
“I’m hoping that you’ll invite me at a later date to make a presentation to the assembly detailing my experiences and the reasons behind this lawsuit,” said Shepard. “So I can more adequately explain to you why I felt it necessary to present this through the legal system as opposed to through the city administration.”
While it is within the assembly’s rights to direct an investigation of the police department, city attorney Brian Hanson encouraged assembly members not to take action until the city had the opportunity to investigate internally.
“This lawsuit brings in considerations of potential for a administrative investigation. Once [city administrator] Keith [Brady] has a chance to look at it and we have a chance to think about it,” Hanson said. “There could be an internal investigation that we initiate regardless of what this body says.”
But when they opened the floor for comment, some members of the public, like Alicia Witherspoon, asked that the assembly consider an outside investigator.
“If you were to hire someone to look into this matter, it should be somebody who has no connection, who it is their job to come into Sitka and look into this,” she said.
Ken Buxton, animal control officer with Sitka Police Department, agreed with Witherspoon. And while he didn’t offer his perspective on the department’s workplace culture, he did encourage the assembly to investigate.
“You investigate, you find nothing. Great. You investigate you find something. Not so great but it had to be investigated,” Buxton said. “You can’t have a body of people complaining and not investigate it.”
But Officer Jayson Christner said while there might be problems worth investigating, they should be reviewed internally, not at an assembly meeting.
“Again, very disappointed that this is being brought up in this body. I think this is something that should be handled at the lowest level. And this is not the lowest level,” Christner said.
As for recruiting a new chief or officers to the department – assembly member Stephen Eisenbeisz said news of a third lawsuit wouldn’t help things.
“Someplace that I would go to work, I would do a quick google search at a bare minimum,” he said. “When I find now that three officers are involved in lawsuits. It’s a really hard sell for me to come to this town.”
Assembly member Nelson made a motion that the assembly move to hire an outside law enforcement specialist to investigate the department, then Aaron Bean made a motion that they go into executive session to discuss that possibility. The assembly voted unanimously to move to executive session.
When they returned, they unanimously passed a motion to create a subcommittee – made up of assembly members Kevin Mosher, Richard Wein and Aaron Bean – that will explore options for a third party to investigate the Sitka Police Department. The subcommittee will bring their findings back to the assembly for consideration at the March 12 meeting.