A sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former police officer against the City of Sitka has settled out of court for over $500,000. Mary Ferguson says she’ll continue pushing for change at the Sitka Police Department. Her settlement includes a provision allowing her to conduct an independent investigation into police management practices.
In Oct. 2018, Mary Ferguson filed suit against the city alleging she had been sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace. At the time, she was the only woman working as an officer for the Sitka Police Department.
Her case settled out of court on Aug. 14, and Ferguson will walk away with $515,000. But her feelings around the settlement are complicated.
“I kind of have mixed emotions about it,” she said. “I want to be optimistic about the city doing something about all of these complaints that have been still occurring. At the same time, I get feeling a little bit hopeless because there have been so many people that have come forward, and it just doesn’t feel like anything is getting resolved.”
Ferguson’s is the third suit brought by a former Sitka police employee that has been settled in recent months. Another detective, Ryan Silva, settled a whistleblower suit with the city last December for over $300,000. Earlier this year, Noah Shepard, a former jailer and officer trainee, settled his harassment suit for $30,000.
The spate of settlements did not put an end to the complaints, however. In July, former dispatcher Allison Kirby published a lengthy letter on social media alleging racial bias in the department. Kirby told KCAW that although she had no plans to take legal action, she believes racism within the department remains an issue the current administration has not solved.
Ferguson, on the other hand, had hoped to take her case all the way to trial.
“The lawsuit certainly raised a little bit of awareness, but it didn’t do enough to make anything really actionable,” she said. “The thing that I’m missing out on by settling this case, is I don’t get to go before a jury, and I don’t get to have my evidence presented.”
Ferguson’s attorney, Jim Davis with the Northern Justice Project, says her case was strong enough to go to trial.
“She had complained about sexual harassment and nothing was done. She had complained about gender discrimination; nothing was done. She had complained about misconduct within the police department, and as a result of all of that, she was demoted from detective to night patrol, for no other reason except she was ‘hard to get along with,’” said Davis. “So it was a pretty strong case.”
Even so, Davis says the settlement is a good outcome for Ferguson because it’s not clear where a jury would have landed.
“In this era, where people are more aware of the evils of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, a jury could have been super, super irate at the police department for doing this to Mary,” he said.
“On the other hand, maybe a lot of Sitkan juries would think, ‘We don’t want to penalize the police department because we have to finance the police department, so do we really want to award Mary $10 million if we’re going to have to pay more taxes as a result of such an award?’” Davis said.
Because Ferguson won’t see justice before a jury, she’s putting her hopes on the second part of the settlement, which allows her to pay for an independent investigation into the police department — a circumstance which Davis says is very rare.
“I would say it’s extraordinarily unusual,” he said. “I’ve been practicing law for almost 30 years now, and I haven’t seen any case where one absolutely essential part of the settlement was, as Mary demanded here, an impartial investigation of the police department,” he said. “Mary was not going to settle this case unless that happened.”
Retired Alaska Superior Court Judge Eric Smith of Palmer has agreed to spearhead the investigation. Davis says the work could cost Ferguson $10,000-$30,000. And while the investigator won’t be able to force anyone to speak with him or subpoena any depositions or documents, he will talk to whomever is willing and review any documents provided to him.
KCAW spoke with city attorney Brian Hanson, who says the city admits no fault as a result of the settlement. And he says that the city did not “sanction or approve” an investigation in the settlement agreement, but it did acknowledge that Ferguson may conduct her own private investigation, a right he says is afforded to any citizen.
“All we’ve said that we would do is not interfere with that investigation, and that’s what we would do or not do with anybody who started an investigation. We will not interfere,” Hanson said.
And though Hanson said the city isn’t obligated to give Smith access to records that he can’t legally acquire through the Public Records Act, like personnel files, he says city staff are complying with the investigation.
“We’ve already had contact with Judge Smith,” he said. “We told our employees that if they want to speak with Judge Smith, they’re more than welcome to do so. In fact, I think Chief [Robert] Baty is encouraging employees to do so.”
Ferguson says she will limit her interactions with the investigator, and she hopes to get participation from as many people as possible.
“This isn’t just about me,” she said. “This is about everybody. I’m welcoming even the parties to my lawsuit. I hope that they participate in this investigation. I hope that their voices are heard, that their evidence is presented to this investigator.”
She’ll provide that investigation to the Sitka Assembly with the hopes that they’ll use it to take action. Ferguson has long been calling for an outside investigation into the department, supporting an assembly decision to earmark over $30,000 to conduct its own investigation. But the hiring of an outside investigator was postponed, and the item has not come before the assembly again for consideration.
Ferguson says just because the case is settled, that doesn’t mean she’s finished.
“This is not over,” she said. “Because I’m not going to have a jury trial, and the city gave me some money and agreed to not stand in my way? It doesn’t mean things are over. If the investigation reveals that there needs to be further action, I will be right there, supporting that further action.”