The head of the Alaska Police Standards Council is questioning a decision by the Sitka Police Department to rehire a decertified police officer to work in its local jail.
Although the hiring is now more than 10 years old, it has relevance today: The police officer initially lost his job and his certification over allegations of excessive force against prisoners. But a legal loophole prevents the state from taking action to keep him from being rehired.
Dale Hanson has worked for the Sitka Police Department twice. The first time didn’t end well. He was originally hired in 1976. Three years later, he shot and killed 28-year-old Peter S. James who had been reported flashing a gun at passersby near Sawmill Creek. An inquest ruled it justified, as Hanson told a jury he had been fired upon.
But the Sitka Sentinel reported the city paid $100,000 to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the man’s family. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $280,000 in today’s dollars.
But it wasn’t large payout that cost him his job.
“In the very early 1980s there were allegations against him that he had allegedly assaulted an inmate in the jail,” said Bob Griffiths, executive director of the Alaska Police Standards Council, which oversees licensing the state’s law enforcement officers. There were actually two allegations of assault — separate incidents in 1981.
Old newspaper clippings from the Sitka Sentinel detail one of them: Hanson struck a young man he’d picked up the night before for underage drinking. He was charged with assault, though it’s unclear if he was ever prosecuted.
“But the city terminated him,” Griffiths said. “And this council at that time, revoked his police certification.”
When that happens it’s meant to be the end of the line for a person’s law enforcement career in Alaska.
But not necessarily in Sitka.
The Alaska Police Standards Council was created to keep troubled officers from bouncing around the state.
“Part of the mission was to try to close the loopholes,” said former Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt, who chaired the commission for five years. “Because Alaska had a bad reputation for years of bad police officers … rotated around the state.”
But there’s some irony here. It was Schmitt who rehired Dale Hanson in 2009. It had been 28 years since Hanson was fired, and Schmitt says he doesn’t recall any red flags during the routine background check.
“I don’t think that we would have hired anybody if we had uncovered a decertification unless there was some sort of mitigating after action,” Schmitt said. “You know, things that happen later that somehow mitigated it. I just don’t think that that would have happened.”
But apparently it did. So how? Here’s what’s known: Aside from the excessive force complaints in the jail, Hanson had reportedly asked a fellow officer to falsify evidence against another man. This is all documented in his 1983 decertification letter. Which sat in a box of paper records and wasn’t checked when he was hired a second time, this time as a jailer.
Griffiths says poor record-keeping at the time may be partly to blame. Until files were digitized, records were separated by category — probation officers, jailers, police officers.
“And until about six years ago when the police Standards Council purchased and put in place a computerized system those records were not integrated,” he said.
Hanson’s old police file probably would’ve remained forgotten. But a series of records requests by USA Today journalists led to the creation of one of the nation’s first databases of decertified police officers posted online last year. Dale Hanson’s name is among more than 33,000 listed across 44 states.
Earlier this month CoastAlaska put the question to the police standards council: had this former police officer — fired and stripped of his certificate for assaulting people — been cleared to work in Sitka’s jail?
Griffiths looked into it and notified the Sitka Police Department of possible concerns. He put the city on notice that Hanson’s continued employment as a jail guard could be referred to the council for possible action.
Then on Tuesday, after receiving some updated legal advice, Griffiths reversed himself: the legislature had carved out an exemption for municipal jailers.
“Sitka has not chosen to adopt or subject themselves to state regulation governing the municipal corrections officers in their facility — that’s the bottom line,” he said.
That means the standards council — meant to regulate police department personnel in the state — lacks authority over Sitka’s municipal corrections officers.
“And they may just conclude that after this lengthy period of time that it’s not something they need to be concerned about,” Griffiths said, “but I don’t know that it’ll be up to them.”
The exemption for municipal corrections officers was carved out by the Legislature in 1998, noted Robert Henderson, a former deputy attorney general under Gov. Bill Walker overseeing the Department of Law’s criminal division.
“I don’t know why the Legislature carved out this exception,” Henderson said in a phone interview. He’s an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center. “If it is a loophole and it was a mere oversight by the Legislature then it needs to be addressed,” he said. “But I hesitate to answer that precise question because I think it calls for some speculation.”
Police personnel records — including allegations of abuse — are sealed. So it’s nearly impossible to check Hanson’s work history since he was re-hired in 2009.
One high-profile case is known. Hanson was the jailer on duty in 2014 when two Sitka police officers stripped and repeatedly tased a Mt. Edgecumbe student inside his jail cell.
Video was leaked online leading to community outcry over the teen’s treatment. A lawsuit was filed. Eventually $350,000 was paid to the man’s family.
Schmitt notes that the nearly six-minute video shows Hanson on the periphery throughout the Taser incident.
“The lawsuit wasn’t really directed at him,” Schmitt said. “It was directed at the officers with the Taser. But I don’t recall any complaints against him or excessive use of force complaints or really any type of complaints against Dale Hanson.”
Sitka city officials declined to be interviewed. In a statement, City Administrator John Leach says Hanson is on personal leave until August 5.
“Chief (Robert) Baty will be providing a quarterly update to the Assembly concerning his department at the August 11th Assembly meeting,” Leach wrote in an email.
Messages left for Hanson seeking comment weren’t returned.
“Regardless of Alaska Police Standard Council’s determination, we are still looking into the matter,” Leach added in a follow-up email