A screengrab from the YouTube video showing a Sitka teen being repeatedly tased by police while in custody in the fall of 2014.

A screengrab from the YouTube video showing a Sitka teen being repeatedly tased by police while in custody in the fall of 2014.

No word yet from FBI in Sitka Taser probe

SITKA — The Sitka Police Department is still waiting for results of an FBI investigation launched nearly seven months ago into the use of force by three Sitka officers in a 2014 tasing incident.

Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt requested the investigation following the online release of a video that showed officers restraining and repeatedly tasing Franklin Hoogendorn, a Mt. Edgecumbe High student at the time, while he was in custody in the Sitka jail.

The FBI got involved on Nov. 16 at the request of Alaska State Troopers. Shortly after the video was released on YouTube, Schmitt had asked the troopers to review the police department’s actions during the arrest.

[FBI will take lead in Sitka Taser probe.]

The City and Borough of Sitka addressed the civil matter with Hoogendorn by way of a $350,000 settlement in February, but there has yet to be a response from the FBI or Alaska State Troopers.

Schmitt recently told the Sentinel the police department has been sending investigators all of the information they’ve requested.

“We had gotten a subpoena for all the documents several weeks ago,” Schmitt said, referring to an emailed subpoena received by police with a deadline of April 19.

The final items submitted included emails related to the incident, records of training, officers records, and records on the particular Taser police had used.

The chief said he didn’t understand why the department was given a subpoena for records, when it had made everything available that had been requested in connection to the incident when the FBI was here in December. He asked the FBI investigators the same question.

“It makes it more official, more legal — that’s what they told me,” Schmitt said.

He said he had hoped that the review or investigation would’ve been concluded by now, but he’s in unfamiliar territory. He said he doesn’t know how long such an investigation takes.

“I don’t have any experience with this,” Schmitt said. “I’ve been surprised by everything to do with this investigation. At this point I don’t know, I would certainly like to get it over with, and have closure.”

Specifically, Schmitt said, he called for the review to see what could have been done differently.

“What I asked them for specifically was to take a look at the Hoogendorn incident, to see if we had done anything wrong, to see if we handled it correctly or not,” Schmitt said. “It didn’t take long for them to respond … They said the FBI was going to assist, and the FBI came down to investigate the tasing incident.”

[Sitka officials talk about leaked jail video.]

Richard Vanveldhuisen, with the FBI Division Council in Anchorage, told the Sentinel this week the investigation is being done jointly with the troopers, and there’s no timeline for cases like these.

“It’s still an ongoing investigation. They’re still in the evidence-gathering stage,” Vanveldhuisen said.

Hoogendorn, an Alaska Native, was 18 at the time of the incident. A day after it was announced that the FBI was taking over the investigation, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska sent a letter to the FBI concerning the tasing case. The letter, written by Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines, alleges a history of prejudice in the Sitka Police Department against tribal citizens and asks that the tribe be included in the investigation.

Baines said he met with an agent to discuss the case, as did other tribal citizens.

“They came and talked to me for a little while and then they also talked to other tribal citizens who had contacted them on their own, I guess,” Baines said. “We had a pretty good talk and they seemed receptive to my comments.”

Schmitt said the troopers have brought the FBI in on other investigations in Alaska, including an investigation of excessive use of force, in Kodiak.

He said the FBI will advise the city when it has concluded its investigation.

“They said when they completed it, they would release something,” Schmitt said.

City Administrator Mark Gorman said staff has been responding to requests from investigators as they come in and the city is hoping to learn as much as they can.

“We want them to complete their investigation and we look forward to receiving their report. This was a very, very serious incident in the history of our police department and we are taking it seriously and await what the FBI has to say on it,” Gorman said.

The actual tasing incident occurred in the fall of 2014. Hoogendorn was detained on alcohol-related charges and the Sitka Police Department video from the jail cell showed him being stripped by two officers and the Sitka jailer. Hoogendorn was resisting, and one of the officers repeatedly tased Hoogendorn in the leg. That officer left the department prior to the release of the YouTube video and Schmitt said he left in good standing.

The video, which was made by the jail security system, was leaked online more than a year after the event. Prior to that the police department had conducted its own investigation and found the officers’ actions were consistent with department policy. But in response to the outcry following release of the video, Schmitt invited the outside investigation.

Schmitt said previously, and again this week that while “it didn’t look good, it wasn’t gratuitous or outside our policy — they could’ve handled it differently.”

Since that time, the department has reviewed its training on tasers, and retrained officers on the equipment. “That has effectively changed our procedures,” he said.

The main change is related to the use of the “drive stun” feature as a “pain compliance tool.” The technique involves applying the Taser directly to the body of the subject. The usual procedure is to shoot prongs that trail wires from the Taser and shock the subject from some distance away. While the use of the “drive stun” feature is not prohibited, it would have to be an exceptional circumstance to be used.

“I can’t say we would never use it but it would have to be exceptional,” Schmitt said. “We no longer use the Taser (in drive stun) as a pain compliance tool.” However, he said, he has seen the Taser used effectively to subdue an out-of-control person in custody. For example, the chief said, it was used effectively to subdue an armed and violent suspect who was threatening to take his own life.

“I think that we’re less likely to use the Taser, using that method of drive-stun,” he said.

In the days following the release of the video and the resulting public focus on excessive force issues, the police department, responding to local media requests, made its own policies and procedure manual available to the public.

Also, police department staff and city officials, joined by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, held a town hall meeting in December to discuss the incident and address the racial issues that were brought forward.

• This article first appeared in the Daily Sitka Sentinel.

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