Assembly members asked pointed questions as Juneau Police Department officers outlined policies and progress made in making the JPD as community-oriented as possible in a Monday night meeting of the Committee of the Whole.
“It’s an uncomfortable place for many of our officers. They’re not used to having their job being scrutinized by the public,” said City Manager Rorie Watt. “Our citizens have asked that we look at policing. I think we have good stories to tell.”
JPD Chief Ed Mercer and Deputy Chief David Campbell were present to answer questions and demonstrate how many of their policies were already in line with some of the standardized demands of civil rights protesters.
“There’s state agencies, there’s the City and Borough of Juneau,” Mercer said about oversight over the department. “There’s oversight of the JPD.”
The city manager’s office has some oversight over JPD’s day to day, Mercer said. When there’s a use of force incident of sufficient gravity, the city manager will sit down with JPD leadership and review the video and the facts at hand. There are also other committees that ostensibly provide oversight from a higher level.
“I would like to point out that our very own chief Mercer is on the Alaska Police Standards Council,” Campbell said. “At their meetings they do review cases, they do decide to pull certifications.”
The Office of Special Prosecutions and Office of Victims Rights also help investigate potential excesses of force, Mercer said.
“They (the OSP) can determine if an officer didn’t make a legal decision and can bring criminal charges against an officer,” Mercer said.
The OSP gets involved any time there’s an officer involved shooting, and the OVR is there to help victims of a crime, able to pull records and determine if the officer and police department provided satisfactory service, Mercer said.
None of these oversight committees or organizations are composed of members elected from the general public. Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs asked Watt to consider what the creation of a citizen oversight board would entail to be discussed at a future meeting.
JPD has worn body cameras since 2016, Mercer said, and despite some issues with battery life and the physical durability of the hardware, the department is quite happy with them.
“Overall the officers enjoy having the body worn on them. It shows accountability and it shows the public we’re out doing the best job we can,” Mercer said. “Biased based policing is a misconduct and will be investigated if a complaint comes in.”
Great responsibility demands high standards
One such complaint came following a shots fired call.
After pulling over a vehicle driving erratically to make contact and investigate possible involvement in discharging firearms injudiciously, the officer arrested the driver for driving while intoxicated. The driver alleged that it was racially motivated, but an investigation of the cameras determined that the officers couldn’t see the race of the driver until the actual traffic stop, Mercer said. The race of the inviduals involved in the shots fired call was also unknown. The claim of racial motivation was dismissed.
“Racism does exist and will continue to exist, unfortunately,” Mercer said. “Our contacts with the public for the most part don’t sway either way. Color is not going to come into play when we provide those services.”
Mercer and Campbell went out of the way to highlight many extant policies that already support or exceed positions requested by protesters. Alaska statute means that no officer with a domestic violence conviction will be hired, Mercer said.
“For domestic violence it doesn’t just rely on a conviction,” Campbell said. Some people with domestic violence issues, even at non-conviction levels, were passed on for hiring.
Serving officers that are charged with domestic violence charges would likely, though not definitely, be decertified, Mercer said.
“No one with a domestic violence conviction will be certified in Alaska,” Mercer. “If an officer is convicted of domestic violence, most likely that officer would lose their certification.”
JPD had not hired police officers terminated from other agencies in recent memory, Mercer said.
“It’s flags flag flags if someone discloses they were terminated from another police agency,” Mercer said. “We don’t want to pick up someone else’s dirty laundry. We want to foster our relationship with serving this community.”
The JPD is reviewing its 103 separate policies on all aspects of the department to see what’s able to be safely released to the public, Mercer said. JPD’s concern is releasing operational procedures that a suspect could use to foil or stymy an investigation.
“What you wouldn’t want is for the perpetrator in that case to pull up the JPD manual and see step by step how we’re going to investigate that,” Mercer said. “The ones we deal with operational details, tips and techniques, we are going to recommend we don’t release.”
Mercer said he welcomed the members of the Assembly visiting JPD to view the policies that they’d prefer not to release to the public. He also invited Assembly members to go on ride alongs, participate in shoot/no shoot sims, or sit in on the JPD’s Citizen’s Academy to gain a clearer picture of the issues.
Mercer also welcomed looking at other assets than the police for dealing with crises of a mental health or substance misuse.
“Is the police always the best first responders for a scenario? I am more than welcoming other means to deal with the issues we see in our community,” Mercer said. “Maybe having a police officer not being front and center but part of a group might provide a better outcome.”
However, both the Assembly and JPD agreed there are bigger issues.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who want us to address systemic racism,” said Assembly member Rob Edwardson. “The reason we’re sitting here right now is not necessarily JPD, it’s racism.”
Others echoed the sentiment.
“We have an overwhelming load on our plate right now with the COVID crisis. We’re trying to tackle racism,” said Assembly member Michelle Hale. “It’s hundreds of years old. It’s not something that we’re going to be able to whip through in a few meetings. We need to listen to our community and work with our community.”