The City of Sitka has released its police department Operating Procedures Manual to the public.
The 342-page document was posted on the city’s website on Wednesday morning (11-25-15), in the wake of a viral video showing a high school student being tased in the Sitka jail.
KCAW filed a public records request for the document, after Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt brought a copy to a press conference with Sitka reporters on November 3. A video posted on social media showing a teenager being repeatedly tased in the Sitka jail had gone viral, and prompted concerns over the use of excessive force in the department.
The radio station’s request was formally denied in a letter drafted by Sitka’s legal department, on the grounds that the release of police procedures “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” among other objections.
Maegan Bosak, Sitka’s Community Relations Director, says the city has reconsidered its position.
“I think it was requested by different media outlets and citizens. And after review the city decided that there was a need to be fully transparent, and wanted to make it available to read through and use as needed.”
The Operating Procedures Manual — or OPM — is based on operating procedures used by the Alaska State Troopers.
Lance Ewers is a former trooper, and now serves as one of two lieutenants in the Sitka Police Department.
“I think what we’re literally living through is an evolution in law enforcement.”
Ewers believes that allowing people to fully understand police procedures is important to understanding why we created police forces historically, rather than giving police duties to the military.
“So what we’re seeing here is a giant step — a beautiful step — backwards in time, where we’re remembering that there is no us versus them. There’s only us, and we are the people, and the people are the police. So why wouldn’t we want the people to know what the rulebook is?”
The 342-page manual covers everything from wearing the uniform, to the operation of police vehicles, to bioterrorism. In the aftermath of the tasing video, many people will probably be turning to Chapter 104, which covers the use of force.
The video shows two officers and a jailer escorting 18-year old Franklin Hoogendorn, then a student at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, into the Sitka jail after his arrest in September of last year on charges of Disorderly Conduct. Over the course of the engagement, the three officers physically restrain Hoogendorn, remove all his clothing except for his underwear, while repeatedly tasing him in the thigh.
The specific levels of force demonstrated in the Hoogendorn video aren’t spelled out in detail in the Operating Procedures Manual. Lt. Ewers says this where police training comes into play.
“We can’t punish someone in the use of force. You can’t bring punishment on them. You can use force to gain safe control, but once safe control is obtained you have to de-escalate the amount of force that you’re using.”
Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt has defended the conduct of the officers in the video, saying the arrest conformed to police procedures, and that Hoogendorn was combative with officers from the moment they confronted him outside of a Sitka bar.
Lt. Ewers says that police don’t use force in proportion to the amount of resistance they receive; rather, we require them to always win the upper hand, and gain “safe control.” As long as the force used is reasonable — and he emphasizes reasonable — police are acting appropriately.
“Some people might look at a situation where there are three police officers, and all three officers are trying to restrain one person. And they might look at that and go, Oh there’s three guys — it’s three-on-one — that’s not fair. But in reality, by having three officers, you can use less force than having one officer. Because one officer by himself has to use more force — and is actually legally justified in using more force — to ensure that they win safe control in a certain engagement.”
The Operating Procedures Manual requires the documentation of any force used by police beyond routine handcuffing. The FBI will be conducting an investigation into the Hoogendorn arrest to determine if proper procedures were followed. Among them: Section 402 of the OPM describes searching uncooperative prisoners and placing them in lockdown until they become cooperative. And Section 102, which governs the conduct of police during arrests. It states “His office gives him no right to prosecute the violator, nor to mete out punishment for the offense.”
The assistant district attorney subsequently dropped all five charges against Hoogendorn, and he returned to his home village of Koyuk.