Six months after former Sitka Police detective Mary Ferguson settled her half-million-dollar sexual harassment suit with the city, she’s delivered on her promise to conduct an outside investigation into the department. But even though the investigation was ordered in her settlement and was led by a retired judge, Ferguson is worried that it won’t bring about needed change in Sitka’s police culture.

The report was issued mid-January by Judge Eric Smith. Smith is a retired superior court judge from Palmer. After Mary Ferguson settled her harassment and discrimination suit with the Sitka Police Department last August, she hired Smith to conduct the investigation independently.

Judge Smith spent several months looking into the SPD, reviewing old depositions and interviewing current and former employees — not with the goal of rehashing Ferguson’s case and two other lawsuits brought around the same time,  but to figure out how the current department can improve. 

“My goal in this whole thing from the beginning was to identify what, if any, recommendations I had to improve the operations of the department,” Smith says, “to make what I found to be a very effective department more effective.”

In the report, Smith highlights big changes under the new administration. He says that Chief Robert Baty has improved a department that was previously “plagued by infighting and turnover.” 

“He has hired a mix of new people and very experienced people. He’s been flexible in the ways in which he hires people so that he can try to ensure that he retains people and he doesn’t get a lot of turnover. And he’s put a clear focus on diversity in the workplace.”

Smith found no clear violations of city and state laws under Baty’s tenure and found no evidence that overt racism, sexual harassment, or gender discrimination plague the current department.

Read the 81-page report here (Editor’s note: Some of this document was voluntarily redacted on 2-18-21 to remove details that KCAW considers immaterial to the allegations made by the plaintiff against the Sitka Police Department.)

But he also addresses some concerns. He says that there’s some perception that sworn officers receive preferential treatment over jailers and dispatchers.  Smith also described some of Baty’s actions that may or may not have been retaliatory toward Ferguson and former detective Ryan Silva, who settled his whistleblower suit with the city in 2019. 

“There were certain actions [Baty] took with respect to two of the people that at least gave the appearance that he was perhaps retaliating against them in some fashion,” Smith says. “I don’t think there was a clear intent. I do think there are people who think that they were meant to be retaliatory. Certainly some of the people I interviewed felt that way, and the fact that they did, I think, is an important thing to keep in mind.”

Ryan Silva says whether retaliation on the part of Chief Baty was intentional or not, it’s still concerning. 

“For somebody like Judge Smith to point that out and even use those words, I think, for somebody acting in such a capacity as the chief of police, I think, is very, very troubling,” says Silva. “People in that position, or in those high up positions, pretty much have the power to affect peoples’ lives.”

Judge Smith sent the report to Mary Ferguson and the assembly in late January. Now that she’s read it, Ferguson says she’s mostly satisfied. She’s glad the judge turned over a lot of stones. 

(Photo from Mary Ferguson vs. City of Sitka Facebook page)

“This is a very thorough investigation. It’s an unbiased investigation. It’s one that took six months and he talked to, I don’t know, about 60 people,” she says. “So I would think that this is something that would be of importance to the city of Sitka.”

In the report, Judge Smith recommends that SPD staff attend a professionally mediated retreat. And while he says he didn’t find evidence of racism, sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the current department, he believes SPD should highly prioritize training in these areas, along with whistleblower’s rights trainings.

Ferguson isn’t fully satisfied with these recommendations.

“The recommendations for the Sitka Police Department, you know, like a retreat?” Ferguson sighs. “I feel like that’s something that they’re just going to check off the box, even if they follow it. I think there should be some harsher accountability.”

Ultimately though, Ferguson says that’s on the city.

“There are some people who didn’t talk to him. There are some people who wouldn’t talk to him. So he may not have all the information,” she says. “It’s up to the city to hold people accountable. It’s up to the city to be transparent. It’s not up to this private investigator.”

City & Borough of Sitka administrator John Leach declined KCAW’s request for an interview. In an email to KCAW, Leach writes that Ferguson’s settlement stipulated that CBS had no duty “except not to interfere with any CBS employee speaking with the investigator.” 

Leach writes that he and Chief Baty cooperated with Judge Smith throughout the investigation, and encouraged SPD staff to do so. He says he’s studied the report and its recommendations and will give it “due consideration” and has discussed it in detail with Chief Baty.

Ferguson hopes the city will use Judge Smith’s investigation as a guide for further action, and she says it isn’t the end of the line in her push for change at the Sitka Police Department. 

“I’m not done here, you know? My journey continues. Too stubborn to let anything go,” she says. “I’m going to continue to push for change. I’m going to continue to push for accountability. And if I have to keep going up the state chain, then I’m going to.” 

And if that chain leads to further litigation, Ferguson says she’ll consider going there as well.