Chief Ed Mercer of the Juneau Police Department answered questions from the Assembly of the City and Borough of Juneau on the department’s use of force policy, oversight, and other topics during an Assembly webinar on June 9, 2020. (Stock photo | Juneau Empire)

Chief Ed Mercer of the Juneau Police Department answered questions from the Assembly of the City and Borough of Juneau on the department’s use of force policy, oversight, and other topics during an Assembly webinar on June 9, 2020. (Stock photo | Juneau Empire)

Assembly asks for use of force policy specifics

Transparency is on everyone’s mind

The Juneau Police Department’s brass reaffirmed the department’s commitment to safely policing and protecting the community in a virtual meeting with the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly.

However, during the Monday meeting, they would not commit to disclosing the department’s use of force policy.

“Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our country has been ripped apart,” said JPD Chief Ed Mercer during the meeting. “What happened in Minneapolis should not happen anywhere in our country.”

But not everyone was immediately reassured.

“I would like to see the use of force policy,” said Assembly member Rob Edwardson. “Is that possible?”

“At this time, no,” Mercer replied.

While Anchorage’s policies, at least as recently as 2013, are available online, Juneau’s are not. The Empire has filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking to see these policies.

“The majority of police departments do not post their policies online. We are pretty careful with what we share with the public operationally,” Mercer said. “I do not believe I have anything that the JPD is doing that we’re trying to hide from the public.”

Mercer said that he’d be open to a discussion with assembly members offline about the use of force policy, but that it was JPD’s protocol not to release that to the public.

Of particular concern to a number of assembly members were the eight policies outlined in the “8 Can’t Wait” movement, a movement to enact policies aimed at cutting down on police brutality nationwide.

Those eight policies include banning chokeholds and stangleholds; requiring deescalation; requiring warning before shooting; exhausting all alternatives before shooting; requiring intervention should other police officers use excessive force; banning shooting at moving vehicles; having a use of force continuum and requiring comprehensive reporting.

Playing close to their vest

Mercer said JPD already follows a number of those policies, but wouldn’t commit to making the JPD’s use of force policies public.

“They are specific things. I need to know why the JPD is suggesting the public can’t see what you do do. That’s troubling to me,” said Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski. “Why are you guarding that document when you do six of the eight?”

Mercer mentioned that at least of the eight goals, the use of the continuum of force, was not a practicable one from his point of view, and represented an outdated view of policing.

“The use of force continuum is defunct. Required warning before shooting, we do that,” Mercer said. “We’ve had active shooters in this country. It’s not reasonable for them (officers) to give warnings before they shoot in those circumstances.”

It’s also JPD policy that no one with a domestic violence charge may join the department, Deputy Chief David Campbell said.

“Domestic violence is one of those topics we absolutely have a policy about,” Campbell said. “There are no hires with domestic violence in their background.”

Mercer and Campbell also referenced cases in which the JPD had arrested some of its own officers, including a case in 2019 where an off-duty officer was arrested for DWI after striking a and hospitalizing a woman with his automobile. The officer’s employment with the force was terminated. But Assembly members also had questions about complaints raised against officers in the line of duty.

“People change over time. You don’t necessarily screen over time, and you get complaints. I’m getting more reports at a rapid pace about use of force,” Edwardson said. “These aren’t kneeling on anyone’s neck, but placing hands on people, manhandling people. I’m getting reports of people getting stopped and asked questions by the officer with their hand on the gun.”

Mercer replied that sharing of complaints against officers is something he’d be averse to.

“Again, I think we would have to have a discussion with our law department,” Mercer said. “We do not typically share personnel information.”

Standards and oversight

Mercer talked about the JPD’s policies designed toward maintaining standards in its own ranks, including oversight committees. One of the stated goals of the Black Lives Matter rally on Saturday was the integration of citizen oversight committees over the department composed of members of the community to monitor hiring, policy and recertification.

“I am the policy maker for the department. The deputy chief assists. Every three years, we review the policy,” Mercer said. “Right now, everyone’s asking questions about use of force. We went back and looked at our policy. We compared it with other agencies just to make sure our policy is in line with other agencies.”

Mercer said that there already exists oversight in the form of things like the Alaska Police Standards Council and the Office of Special Prosecution. However, these are part of the Alaska Department of Public Safety and the Alaska Department of Law respectively. Mercer himself is a part of APSC as a chief.

Mercer said Juneau has had limited interaction with the 1033 program, a program that facilitates the transfer of excess military hardware to local police departments, in response to a question from Assembly member Carole Triem. Equipment transferred to departments across the country includes things such as armored personnel carriers to firearms and ammunition.

“We participate in the 1033 Program, which is a federal program,” Mercer said. “The last thing we got through the military and we use is our mobile incident command center. We also got SWAT gear, and they issued us our rifles. Those rifles were issued back in the early 2000s and we have since replaced them.”

Mercer also fielded questions regarding racial patterns in arrests. Campbell said that in many cases, data on the race of suspects in custody was not collected due to a policy forbidding officers to ask. However, Mercer praised the ongoing use of body cameras, started in 2017, despite occasional malfunctions or dead batteries with the cameras themselves.

“There are consequences for our officers not complying with our policies, specifically body-worn cameras,” Mercer said. “I think our officers are seeing how useful a body worn camera can be, for capturing evidence and for refuting allegations against officers that are not true.”

JPD officers will also be present during the virtual Committee of the Whole meeting on June 22 to discuss these issues and others.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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