From left, Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt, Planning and Community Development Director Maegan Bosak and City Administrator Mark Gorman listen to reporters' questions today at City Hall.

From left, Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt, Planning and Community Development Director Maegan Bosak and City Administrator Mark Gorman listen to reporters' questions today at City Hall.

Sitka officials talk about leaked jail video

  • By TOM HESSE and SHANNON HAUGLAND
  • Thursday, November 5, 2015 1:03am
  • NewsLocal News

Reacting to the online release of a video that shows a young man being Tased in the city jail, Sitka city officials on Wednesday expressed confidence in the Sitka Police Department, and said that the incident resulted in minor changes in department policy after it occurred a little over one year ago.

City Administrator Mark Gorman called a news conference Wednesday with Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt and Planning and Community Development director Maegan Bosak to reassure the public that they are “taking the matter very seriously.”

Schmitt and Gorman said they have been receiving a number of calls from people questioning the use of force and use of a Taser on the man in custody.

“Since the video came out we received a lot of calls, which is good. We want the feedback, negative or positive,” Schmitt said, “And, of course, there’s a lot more to the story here than just what you’re seeing on the video.”

The video, taken shortly after midnight on Sept. 6, 2014, was filmed on closed circuit cameras at the city jail. Posted to YouTube last week, the footage shows Franklin Hoogendorn, then 18, being escorted into the police station by two officers who lead him down a corridor. The next section of the video shows the inside of the cell, where three officers are struggling with Hoogendorn.

Hoogendorn resists having his clothes removed, and after several minutes one of the officers Tasers Hoogendorn on the leg.

Schmitt noted that the video does not show what occurred previously, when Hoogendorn was detained outside a downtown bar. In the criminal complaint related to the arrest, officers allege that Hoogendorn was verbally and physically confrontational with Sgt. Daniel Dozois, at one point attempting to run away. He was ultimately charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, minor consuming and two other charges related to being drunk and underage in a bar. All five charges were dismissed by the prosecutor in March.

“Chief Schmitt informed me about this event shortly after it happened 14 months ago,” Gorman said at the news conference. “He assured me that protocols were followed, that it was investigated and that corrective actions were taken.”

He said he did not see the video until this week, but that when he saw it, “it was exactly how Sheldon described it to me.”

In response to the public’s concern, the police chief has asked Alaska State Troopers to review the incident.

Responding to press inquiries after the video became public, Schmitt said it was a situation that could have been handled better, but it still fit within department policies and procedures.

“We have policies guiding use of force in general — everything from putting your hands on people to using handcuffs to using what we call less-lethal munitions like a Taser or OC spray,” Schmitt said.

In the video, all three officers forcefully disrobe Hoogendorn, and the video ends with the teenager lying face down on a mat in his undershorts, not moving. The chief said in an unedited version of the video Hoogendorn later turns over and reclines with his hands behind his head.

The actual procedure, Schmitt said, is to strip search prisoners and provide them with jail-issued clothing.

“Routinely, people are brought in and they’re not combative or drunk. Most people are compliant and they’re put behind a screen where they’re allowed to take off their clothes themselves, and they’re searched at that time by somebody of the same sex and then they’re allowed to put on our clothes,” he said, referring to the jail-issued clothes.

“That’s for safety reasons and for searching reasons. We’ve had people try to hang themselves with their own clothes or stuff up toilets or that kind of stuff,” Schmitt continued.

The chief also cited concerns about contraband being smuggled in, which he said has happened a number of times this year. What is less common, however, is the use of a Taser by the officers in the jail.

“We think we’ve had 8-10 Tasings in 10 years, so about one annually. It doesn’t happen a lot,” Schmitt said.

After the incident with Hoogendorn last year, Schmitt said he counseled the officers as to what they could have done differently.

“They’re trying to get him to comply,” he said of the video footage. “I can tell you it’s not comfortable to watch. Having been a police officer and being involved in lots of scuffles myself, I immediately go, ‘Well, gee, they could have done this or they could have done that.’”

Specifically, Schmitt said, he would have done a cursory search and then allowed the prisoner to calm down before moving ahead with the strip search.

While at Mt. Edgecumbe, Hoogendorn was on the varsity wrestling squad, competing in the state tournament in the 145 pound weight class. Asked if Hoogendorn’s intoxication and training as a wrestler could have led him to resist instinctively, Schmitt said he believes it was “absolutely” a factor.

Schmitt said he understands the instincts of a wrestler who is being restrained.

“I wrestled for seven years and I definitely resort to my wrestling background in any type of conflict I’m in,” Shmitt said.

The city’s primary response to the release of the video has been to be “open with the public,” Gorman said.

“We wanted to have a discussion with you all,” Gorman said at the outset of his press conference. The session, conducted in Gorman’s office at city hall, was attended by reporters from the Sentinel and Sitka radio stations KIFW and KCAW.

“We as a community are concerned and disturbed by what we saw on the video,” the administrator said. “It’s critically important to have confidence in our police department. We want to move forward in a transparent way and be available.”

Schmitt said they couldn’t release or discuss the video at the time of the incident because of the active criminal investigation. Even when the case was closed in March, he saw no reason to bring the information forward.

“We’ve always tried, I have, to be open with the press. To be proactive. I don’t know if I would change or try to proactively release that. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said.

The video was posted last week on YouTube and has received thousands of hits. Schmitt said he didn’t know how the closed circuit video taken by police came to be released. In addition to having the state troopers investigate what happened in the jail cell, Gorman said the city is looking to rebuild trust with the community.

“We have to prove to the community that we’re worthy of their trust,” Gorman said.

Gorman also said the city is taking seriously the fact that Hoogendorn, who is from Koyuk, is a young Alaska Native.

“There’s a national spotlight on this issue. The fact that it was a young Native male is concerning,” Gorman said. “We certainly want to be sensitive to that as well. Anybody looking at that video can’t come away without questions and feeling a little disturbed, or a lot.”

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