When the Sitka Assembly met on August 11, Sitka’s police chief, Robert Baty, presented a quarterly report. Reading from a prepared statement, Baty decried recent news reports involving past conduct at SPD. (KCAW/James)

The Sitka Police Department is nearing the end of a two-year period marred by several lawsuits brought by former employees. At a recent assembly meeting municipal attorney Brian Hanson reported that the last of the three suits–a sexual harassment claim against the city by former detective Mary Ferguson–is pending settlement.

But as that tumultuous period for the Sitka Police Department draws to a close, new accusations of racism and use of force within the organization have emerged, fueled by the growing national conversation about policing.

Sitka Police Chief Robert Baty says the police department of today is not the department of the past.

When the Sitka Assembly met on Aug. 11, Baty presented a quarterly report. Reading from a prepared statement, Baty decried recent news reports involving past conduct at SPD.

“There have been recent letters and newspaper articles accusing the Sitka Police Department of sexism, racism, and having a culture of excessive force,” he said. “I’m compelled to point out that these letters and articles all state issues from the past, long before my administration and tenure as your chief of police.”  

The “articles” are media reports on the resignation of former dispatcher Allison Kirby, who published a long letter on social media accusing the department of racially-based abuses, and a piece by CoastAlaska on the rehiring of a decertified police officer to work in the city jail. Based on public records kept by the Alaska Police Standards Council, the piece showed that the jailer had been decertified for police work because of allegations of excessive force against prisoners in his custody.

The jailer still works in the department under Baty, and in a recent interview with KCAW, Allison Kirby said she believed the culture of racism she experienced during her work immediately prior to Baty’s tenure had not changed.

“This is not something that has been addressed and changed. These are ongoing issues, and even under new leadership, even with new officers, these are still happening, and they still need to be addressed,” she said.  

Baty told the assembly that he was hired to address systemic problems within the department. He distanced himself from his predecessors, and from conduct he says remains in the past. 

“To hold this current department accountable for past administrations is not realistic or forward thinking,” he said. “To open wounds from the past does not allow us to continue our growth and move forward.”

He said that, under his leadership, the department had established a regular training atmosphere that emphasizes “teamwork, respect and professionalism,” had established a clear chain-of-command and was ensuring his officers adhered to policies and procedures. But Baty didn’t offer any statistics on use of force or more information on how training had evolved under his tenure.

Both he and municipal administrator John Leach have declined requests to interview jointly with the Sentinel and KCAW to describe the progress that the department claims to have made. In an email, Leach wrote, “We will not speculate on or discuss items that are not relevant to the work we have specifically been involved with during our employment.”

In his report to the assembly, Baty did point to concrete successes under his tenure: He said that over the past year, the patrol division has gained more full-time officers, with only one vacancy. This time last year, there were six vacancies. Baty also said his officers averaged around 15 years of experience in the field, over double from when Baty was hired. 

“We are more diverse, representing practically every ethnicity. The department is neater and cleaner, which helps to instill a sense of pride in our work areas and the work we produce,” he said. “And there is no longer a toxic environment among our employees.”

Baty complained that Sitkans weren’t hearing the positive news about local law enforcement, and that its successes were overshadowed by the intense scrutiny policing has received since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. 

“Just after the national events that sparked this narrative, Sitka police officers handled three gun calls in quick succession. They certainly could have had bad outcomes, but you didn’t hear about them because of their restraint,” he said. “Since I’ve been here on at least two occasions, officers have literally had to tackle persons to save them from jumping off of the O’Connell Bridge. You didn’t hear about that.”

Until early this year, the Sitka Police Department published detailed, daily dispatch reports, which would appear every afternoon in the Sentinel as the “Police Blotter.” It ran for decades. Now, under a new record-keeping system, the daily reports provided to media consist of a single word or two, like “traffic stop” or “citizen assist.” Except for one incident in mid-June in Sitka’s harbor regarding a man with a knife, KCAW has no record of news releases from the department about any of the activities Baty described–heroic or otherwise.

Baty’s report to the Sitka assembly was billed as a quarterly event. It’s unlikely that the nation’s efforts to understand its racial history and the relationship with law enforcement will change much in three months. One person with close ties to the department hopes to help things improve: Allison Kirby says she doesn’t want to take legal action against the police department. She only wants to talk. 

The question now is: Will the department listen?

“Is the Sitka Police Department okay with being ‘fine’ or ‘good enough’ or ‘not that problematic’? It’s a different question to ask ‘Are we okay enough?,’ versus ‘How can we continue to improve?’ And there have been multiple individuals coming forward saying ‘This is problematic, this is unacceptable, this needs to be addressed,'” Kirby said.

“Whether it’s a part of the national conversation or not, the Sitka Police Department still has work to do,” she said.