At Tuesday’s meeting, Ben Hughey answered questions from Sitka Assembly members about his views on policing. (City of Sitka)

One complaint often heard about people on the front lines of protests for social justice and police reform around the country is that they’re not willing to “work within the system” to bring about change. In Sitka, a lifetime resident offered to do exactly that, by filling a vacancy on the local Police and Fire Commission. A majority of the Sitka Assembly, however, thought his social media activity disqualified him for the volunteer service.

The assembly had no qualms about appointing Ben Hughey to the Parks and Recreation Committee, voting quickly and unanimously to approve his appointment. But what about a seat on the Police and Fire Commission too? Not so fast.

Local police union representative David Nelson voiced his opposition. 

“I was researching Mr. Hughey, and I researched some of his social media posts, and some of them definitely appear to be anti-police or proactively wanting to do things like defund the police,” he said. “It would appear someone is coming on board this commission with, perhaps, some type of pre-ascribed [sic] agenda.”   

Hughey was born in Sitka. He has a master’s degree in public administration, and until recently, was living in Seattle. Speaking to KCAW after the meeting, he said that he was very surprised that the assembly had copies of his posts, as his social media accounts are set to private. He has been outspoken on social media about major police reform, including language around defunding and abolition. But he doesn’t necessarily think it’s a ‘one size fits all’ situation. 

“In the context of Sitka, I don’t know what the best solution is, and I don’t necessarily believe that abolition is exactly what we need,” he said. “I think what we need is an open discussion from different perspectives on paths forward.”

In July, Hughey attended a protest in Seattle, where demonstrators were calling for the city to be held accountable for its history of police violence. Hughey said it was peaceful until officers charged his group and deployed chemical agents.

“I was charged by police officers, pepper sprayed in the face, tackled to the ground, and arrested. I was released on a ‘failure to disperse,’” he said. “It certainly was an educational experience. The process of being booked into jail, put into prison jumpers and put in a holding cell with inadequate facilities, that was overflowing…was a dehumanizing process.” 

Hughey’s arrest was caught on film and shared on social media. Weeks later, Hughey moved back to Sitka, and that’s when he decided to apply for the vacant police commission seat. That’s not because he’s interested in revenge- he sees service on a commission as a way to learn and collaborate. But he told KCAW he thinks the commission could have more oversight. 

“The current Police and Fire Commission is largely a toothless entity, having spoken with commissioners who have concerns,” he said. “The bulk of their work appears to be reviewing parking citations, and they don’t engage in a substantial manner on the controversy at the department, in analyzing trends of police statistics related to stops, related to use of force or demographics of police encounters. I think there’s a lot more information that the community should have about the police force.”

But some assembly members were skeptical of his motives. The assembly took its discussion of Hughey’s commission application into executive session. Hughey said the majority of the conversation behind closed doors involved assembly members asking him about his social media posts, though no members referenced his arrest in Seattle, and it’s unclear if they were aware of it.  When the group returned, they asked Hughey a handful of questions in public, all relating to his views on policing.

“I have made posts on social media regarding the police,” Hughey told the assembly.

“I do believe there are opportunities to lessen the load that we put on our police officers in responding to an immense variety of community problems and I do believe we should investigate alternatives for community investment for mental illness and domestic violence and a variety of other services that our police currently have to fulfill,” he continued. “I do have beliefs on social media that are untested, and as assembly members have pointed out, a great way to test those beliefs is to try to put the work in.”

Member Kevin Mosher questioned his intent, reading an excerpt from a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about police abolition that Hughey had shared to one of his social media accounts- words that Mosher attributed to Hughey directly. 

“This is something that you posted. ‘It’s not just that police are ineffective: in many communities they’re actively harmful. The history of policing is a history of violence against the marginalized,'” Mosher said, reading from a screenshot.

“I’m just wondering how someone with your education level can post these things, and then want to join the commission,” Mosher said to Hughey. “I’m not sure what your intentions are.”

A screenshot from a document Ben Hughey shared to one of his social media accounts. The document, an FAQ originally published by MPD150, was referenced by an assembly member at Tuesday night’s meeting, who argued that Hughey’s social media posts about policing should disqualify him from serving on the police commission. Read the full eight-page document here.

Some assembly members defended Hughey’s potential appointment. Member Steven Eisenbeisz reiterated that the commission is just an advisory commission, and any appointment wouldn’t be able to generate policy or make big changes on a commission with just a handful of seats. And Kevin Knox said he felt Hughey was a good fit for the commission. 

“I think we’re painting him as a radical in such a way that we’re also asking people to not paint all police in that same light,” he said. “I think the discussion around the unfortunate name of ‘defunding the police’ or the different social and racial dialogue that’s going on right now, it’s getting painted as a black and white, us-versus-them, rather than a nuanced discussion.”

But member Richard Wein said it wasn’t the right time or the right place for Hughey’s views, considering the department’s recent history of legal settlements and allegations of abuse that it’s been trying to shake. 

“This is Sitka, and I think that Sitka appropriate people need to be here, and now I sound like a hick, even though I’m from the New York metropolitan area, but what you’re bringing are ‘Big city ideas’ and I think the gentle touch is what’s needed here,” Wein said.   

A member of the public, Tori O’Connell Curran, disagreed. She said the assembly’s decision to reject a commission applicant because of a difference of opinion was not embracing the whole community. 

“You should want diversity of opinion on the commission, so it actually represents the whole community,” she said. “Regarding Mr. Hughey–‘Sitka appropriate people,’ Dr. Wein? A young person who grew up here that wants to work within the system, even when they disagree with that system, is a voice you need.” 

The assembly ultimately failed to appoint Hughey to a three-year term on the Police and Fire Commission, with members Mosher, Nelson, Wein and Paxton voting against the appointment.

Hughey told KCAW he hopes the discussion at the assembly table will generate more interest in the commission. 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities that a new assembly could engage with,” he said. “If the Police and Fire Commission were emboldened and given authorities, or if the Police and Fire Commission were living up to their chartered duties and providing advice and recommendations to the assembly, I think we could have a really new fruitful avenue to address reforms in our departments and bring real benefit to the community.” 

Although Hughey won’t be sitting on the commission, he may have nudged it in a direction that could be more proactive in the future. He told KCAW that Sitka Police Chief Robert Baty approached him after the meeting, and the two plan to continue the discussion.