Sitka officials say taser incident conformed to police policy

Municipal officials in Sitka were briefed about the repeated tasering of a teen in police custody, shortly after the incident occurred in September of last year.

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In a press conference Tuesday morning (11-3-15), Sitka’s administrator and police chief said that the use of force against the 18-year-old conformed to police department policies, even though it wasn’t the only alternative available to the officers at the time — and both told about their own experience being tased earlier in the day.

Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt (l), community planning director Maegan Bosak, and administrator Mark Gorman discuss the Hoogandorn case with reporters Tuesday (11-3-15). Schmitt says that police use tasers rarely — less than once per month — in Sitka. (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)
Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt (l), community planning director Maegan Bosak, and administrator Mark Gorman discuss the Hoogandorn case with reporters Tuesday (11-3-15). Schmitt says that police use tasers rarely — less than once per month — in Sitka. (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)

Any use of force above routine handcuffing in the Sitka Police Department is subject to review. When 18-year old Franklin Hoogendorn was arrested on multiple charges of disorderly conduct and underage drinking last year, and subsequently stripped and tased in his jail cell by three Sitka police officers, the incident made it to the administrator’s desk.

“Chief Schmitt informed me of this event shortly after it happened 14 months ago. He assured me that protocols were followed. It was investigated, and corrective actions were taken. So this was not new to city hall.”

Mark Gorman is Sitka’s municipal administrator. He says he was unable to publicly discuss the case at the time since it was in active litigation.

Gorman and police chief Sheldon Schmitt met with local media to review the Hoogendorn case only after a video of the jail-cell tasering was posted on social media.

“I did make a determination that this was within policy. That the actions of the officers were within policy, despite the fact that it does not look good.”

Chief Schmitt sat before reporters with a list of departmental policies. KCAW’s request for that list of the policies was denied by municipal attorney Robin Koutchak, on the grounds that its release could jeopardize police investigations.

But Schmitt did describe the procedures police follow when they take someone into custody.

“For instance, you’re going to be handcuffed behind your back. You’re going to be searched. You’re going to be brought to jail. You’re going to be strip-searched — people often don’t know that — and there are very good reasons for that procedure. We’ve had contraband smuggled into the jail several times this year.”

In the video, Hoogendorn is physically stripped by the Sitka jailer and two officers. He’s forced to his knees, and then on to his belly, with his hands and feet restrained from behind. Schmitt says that most people brought into custody aren’t handled this way. They’re allowed to step behind a screen and remove their clothing. After a search, they put on a jump suit.

Hoogendorn is repeatedly tased in the video, and left motionless, face-down on a plastic mat, wearing only his underwear.

Schmitt says that Hoogendorn was not being punished. He was being forced to comply with the officers.

“You can’t see that on the video tape very well. His not giving them his hands. He’s pushing off. At one point he tries to kick the officers. And having just fought with him, they’re still concerned that he’s going to fight more. Hence the use of the taser. They’re trying to get him to comply.”

All charges were subsequently dismissed against Hoogendorn. According to court records, the public defender agency obtained detailed personnel records of one of the officers who arrested Hoogendorn — Jonathan Kelton — who was involved in a fatal tasering incident in Roswell, New Mexico in 2013. The victim in that incident, Cody Towler, stopped breathing after being tased in a violent encounter with police. Although the death was ruled a homicide, Kelton and his fellow officers were exonerated when autopsy reports showed evidence that Towler’s health was severely impaired by drug use.

An incident report filed by state of New Mexico indicates that Towler was able to overcome the electric current, and pull the taser prongs from his chest.

Sitka administrator Mark Gorman might find that detail hard to accept.

“I was just tased 45 minutes ago. I went up to the police department. Sheldon was on the ground before me on the ground and was tased. And I was tased by an officer in the leg.”

Gorman says it was very uncomfortable, and he would have complied with any request of the officer administering it.

Chief Sheldon Schmitt says Hoogendorn’s ability to withstand multiple taserings is significant.

“It’s pretty astounding that the young man was tased multiple times and didn’t comply. Because immediately you want to do… it hurts!”

Schmitt and Gorman say they both will remain available to speak to residents about the issue. They’d like to rebuild trust in the community. Although Jonathan Kelton left the department in September of this year, the others remain. “All are good officers,” Schmitt says.

And Gorman is keeping his line open to the Sitka Tribe and other cultural leaders about another significant detail in the incident. Hoogendorn is Alaska Native, and the three officers who left him stunned and motionless are not.

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

Gorman says, “We have the responsibility to remain accountable to the public.”