FBI will take lead in Sitka Taser probe

  • By TOM HESSE and SHANNON HAUGLAND
  • Wednesday, November 18, 2015 1:05am
  • NewsLocal News

The FBI will be taking the lead in the investigation of a 2014 Taser incident in the Sitka jail, police chief Sheldon Schmitt said Monday.

On Nov. 3, Schmitt announced he had asked Alaska State Troopers to investigate the tasering of a Sitka teenager in 2014, and on Monday he said he has received word from Col. James Cockrell, director of the troopers, that the Anchorage-based FBI would be taking the lead and working with AST.

The police chief said he made the request because of the community’s concern about a YouTube video of an altercation involving three local police officers and a prisoner in the Sitka jail.

“I felt it would be prudent to have an outside source take a look at this incident,” Schmitt said. He said he conducted his own review in the days following the September 2014 incident, and had concluded that “while it didn’t look good,” it didn’t violate department policy.

“Based on what the public concern was I felt it would be prudent to have an outside agency take a look at it and I welcome that,” he said.

While the officers’ actions “were not outside policy,” Schmitt said he issued a “directive that the drive stun use of Taser (is) not encouraged.”

The term “drive stun” refers to holding the Taser against the body of the person to be shocked. With another setting, the Taser fires tiny darts to apply a shock to someone not in physical contact with the user.

The police chief said the outside review of the Taser incident is the third time in Schmitt’s 12 years with the department that he has asked for outside help from the troopers to help investigate an incident, and the first time in a “use of force” situation.

This latest case pertains to the September 2014 incident involving 18-year-old Franklin Hoogendorn, a student at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, who was arrested in downtown Sitka for alcohol-related misconduct and taken to the Sitka jail.

The police department’s own holding cell video recorded Hoogendorn resisting attempts by three officers to remove his clothes, which were to be replaced with jail-issue clothing. The video shows the officers wrestling with Hoogendorn as they take off his clothes down to his undershorts. During the struggle, one of the officers Tases Hoogendorn on the leg several times.

Schmitt said Monday he didn’t know when the investigation would start or whether it had already begun, but said his department is ready to answer the investigators’ questions.

He said he doesn’t know what to infer from the involvement of the FBI, but noted that the federal agency has assisted in a number of local issues around the state, including drug investigations through their Safe Streets Initiative.

City Administrator Mark Gorman said the city is taking the situation “very seriously and obviously so have the state and federal agencies.”

He said the city is working to be as “open and transparent as possible” with the public in regard to the Hoogendorn incident.

But while consistently affirming that the officers’ actions fit within department use-of-force procedures, the city staff has not released those procedures to the public.

The Sentinel has asked the city to release a copy of the department procedures but Schmitt said it is not department policy to open that information to the public.

Other municipalities make the relevant policies easily accessible, including the City of Anchorage, which within the past year posted 604 pages of police department policies on the city’s website.

Gorman said he believes there will be “a conversation” about doing the same in Sitka.

“There’s a healthy debate in City Hall. I believe we should give the public absolutely everything,” he said, “and there’s a counter view to that: That we should not give the public absolutely everything.”

Schmitt said it’s more common for procedures not to be publicly disclosed out of concern that it would make it harder for officers in the field. Gorman said he understands there may be “trade secrets that we don’t want out in the public,” but he also acknowledged that opening up the policies and procedures may help the public better understand the 2014 Tasing incident, as it did for him when he read them.

“I would agree that I think if they read the policy, it’s not very defined, but they would see they could use the non-lethal weapons in this case … The one issue where it falls short is it does not specify how many times can somebody be drive stunned and it not be excessive. It doesn’t get into that issue.”

The online Anchorage Police Department policy on Tasers says that “the officer shall energize the subject the least number of times and no longer than reasonably necessary to accomplish the legitimate operational objective.”

Hoogendorn was shocked at least five times, according to some reports. The Anchorage policy does not put a number on what “the least number of times” is, and Gorman said Sitka’s policy doesn’t either.

“It allows for (use of the Taser) but it doesn’t say if eight drive stuns were excessive,” Gorman said.

The administrator did say that the policy requires an internal review of all use-of-force incidents. In the Hoogendorn case that led to changes in procedure.

The policy of drive stunning “is not encouraged” through a directive from Schmitt, and Alaska Public Safety Training Academy Commander Chad Goeden said the technique is “discouraged” in training of Alaska police officers. Goeden said the practice was deemed ineffective compared to the Taser’s other function, which fires two probes into the suspect and runs a current between them.

“It is a last resort and widely discouraged because it is not as effective as the probes,” Goeden said.

The officer who Tased Hoogendorn came from New Mexico and was not trained at the Public Safety Academy. That officer also had a history with a previous incident in New Mexico in which a suspect died after being Tased. The officer was exonerated in that case and while he no longer works at the Sitka Police Department, Schmitt has said he left in good standing.

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