Hoonah keeps controversial police chief

Posted: Sunday, March 01, 2009

Editor's note: This is the first part of a series on the controversy surrounding the Hoonah Police Department.

Back | Next
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

Bucking the recommendation of the mayor, a warning from the city attorney and the findings of a police auditor, the Hoonah City Council voted this week to keep its controversial police chief.

"I think we owe him the opportunity to prove himself to the council and show the people whether he can do that job," said Council Member Mary Erickson, a local bar owner, who voted to keep Chief Jefferson Hankla.

Hoonah, a highly interconnected and interrelated community of about 850 people, has been divided over Hankla's tenure since he got the job. And now legal troubles could be in store, too.

The council hired Hankla last winter as the police chief and director of public safety even though Hankla didn't have the qualifications required by city ordinance. These included five years' experience and an advanced certificate from the Alaska Police Standards Council. Hankla had less than two years' experience as a Hoonah patrolman and possessed a basic certificate, which requires a year of experience.

The council resolved the issue by making Hankla acting chief, changing the ordinance to lower the qualifications, and then hiring him for the job.

Al "Windy" Skaflestad is the second mayor to run afoul of Hankla. He inherited the dispute from the last mayor, Dennis Gray, who was thwarted by the council in an attempt to demote Hankla to patrolman.

The current mayor brought in an outside consultant.

Greg Russell, a retired Alaska police chief now serving as a police practices consultant for the Alaska Municipal League, spent a week in Hoonah in January doing a management audit.

When Russell's findings were turned in - evidence of incompetence and insubordination - Mayor Skaflestad suspended Hankla and recommended his dismissal.

"It took a long time to make that decision," he said. "I did it on facts."

The council, however, voted in an executive session 4-2 to keep Hankla. The session was public at Hankla's request.

Like the town, the police department also is deeply divided.

Lieutenant Billy Mills quit the department soon after Hankla was hired and says he intends to sue the department over its hiring practices. Mills worked in Hoonah for his entire police career of 16 years, and is now an officer in Craig. He plans to work four years and retire back to Hoonah, where his family lives.

"I've had to leave my hometown because of what this gentleman is doing," Mills said.

Officer Paul Comolli, a close friend of Mills, remains at the department. Much of Hoonah has come to see this conflict as Comolli vs. Hankla.

Comolli has a few weeks until retirement, and he plans to stick it out. He has been working night shifts while Hankla works days; the men rarely interact, he said. Comolli said that he and three dispatchers are planning to file a class-action harassment lawsuit regarding Hankla.

Comolli has been working in Hoonah since being fired from the Juneau Police Department, where he was union president. He is challenging his termination in federal court.

The city attorney, Kristen Miller of the Juneau-based Dillon and Findley, stopped short of recommending Hankla's dismissal. Her advice was that the report had enough evidence to support the mayor's recommendation of dismissal. She also said "the report outlines many deficiencies which, if unchecked or uncorrected, expose the city to considerable liability risk."

Miller said she had been contacted by an attorney working for Hoonah residents, whom she didn't name.

"I think that they will sue either way," she said.

Tuesday's big meeting

Russell, during his week in Hoonah, found the police department to be "abysmally inefficient."

"I saw that there was some harassment, intimidation, sexual harassment. Things that were just pretty embarrassing," he said.

Some problems: There was no esprit de corps, he said. Employees told him they were miserable working there. The chief had distributed sexually explicit material to employees. Despite a mayor's directive and city ordinance, the chief and others smoked in the police building. The evidence locker didn't lock, and neither did the police building.

The chief did not know how to do his job and appeared to be unwilling to change, according to the consultant.

"I came here with the idea that I would be able to help," Russell said. "But it became quickly apparent that I could not advise in this situation."

Russell never finished his prepared presentation because council members cut him off, saying his report is not public since it falls under a personnel issue.

But Hankla requested, as is his right, that the council's discussions on whether to fire him be public.

This public discussion about a private document created an unusual tension at the meeting. After Russell began detailing his case for Hankla's incompetence and insubordination, a council member who favors the chief objected that details of the report shouldn't be discussed in public. The city attorney in response cut off Russell's presentation and shifted the format into a question-and-answer session.

On the other side, one anti-Hankla councilor - Joyce Skaflestad, a former magistrate who is married to the mayor - confronted Hankla in front of the audience with several of the items in the report.

The chief defended himself with vigor.

"I can't do squat under the current situation," he said.

The last two mayors had tied his hands. He was unable to hire, he said, fire or reprimand his employees. The EMS and fire chiefs were acting without his blessing. He had inherited a staff that undercut him. The facilities of the police department had been ignored for years, and the officers' uniforms were falling apart.

The sexually explicit material was a mistake, he said. Hankla had sent the material to people whom he has seen "observing that type of material in the building," and was ready to apologize. All the criticism was getting to him, he said.

"I would be less than honest with you if I didn't tell you, well, I'm getting a little thin-skinned about accepting the position of chief of police and chronically getting hauled back down here and raked over the coals," he said.

Most of the audience applauded his defense, and again soon thereafter during his reinstatement by the council.

"I think I'll make a dad gum good police chief for the city of Hoonah," he said.

That is, he said, if they let him do his job.

Where to next, Hoonah?

City Council Member Raino Hill voted to keep Hankla but struck a conciliatory tone the next day with Hankla's employee and opponent, Comolli.

"Can things up there be mended? That's the hope of the council," he said,

Hill said the chief had the right attitude, not "New York tactics" but rather "low-key" community policing.

"He's the boss now, and if he can't make it heal, then he has to go," Hill said, and invited Comolli to chat anytime.

Hoonah residents had mixed opinions on whether such reconciliation was possible.

Mike Mills, the father of the police officer who quit, said Hankla could not be trusted.

"I miss him. I miss Billy. I've got no hunting partner," he added.

The one instance resident Donna Austin needed police when someone tried to break into her shop while she was alone, Hankla responded quickly and professionally and nabbed the would-be burglar. He did a good job, she said. Yet she didn't wish to fuel the fire.

"I'm very grieved that the town is so divided," she said.

As for whether Hankla's hands will be tied, Hankla himself cannot say. The day after he became chief again, Mayor Skafflestad gave the city administrator direct supervision over public safety, and one of David Richards' first acts was to inform Hankla that he could not speak to the Juneau Empire.

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us